East Turkestan: China Accused of Abuses Against Uyghurs
ELEANOR HALL: A human rights group is warning that ethnic tensions in the Uighur region of China are at extreme levels and is calling on the international community to condemn the Chinese Government's response to this year's deadly ethnic riots.
Last week, Chinese authorities sentenced nine men to death for being involved in the protests.
Today the New York based group, Human Rights Watch, released its report into the unrest in the Urumqi area of China.
It found that authorities detained at least 43 Uighur men and boys who have since disappeared.
Dinah PoKempner is the general counsel for Human Rights Watch and she spoke to me from New York.
Dinah PoKempner thanks for joining us. Now your report says that some Uighur boys as young as 12 disappeared in July this year. What exactly do you mean by this term "disappeared"?
DINAH POKEMPNER: An enforced disappearance in international law is when the state has people abduct you or take you into custody and then either denies that you've been detained or won't reveal where you are.
And in these cases we have witnesses who saw the people being detained by Chinese security forces. When their families went to find out with the authorities where they'd gone to the fact of their detention was completely denied.
There were women who, you know, whose husbands disappeared while they were in the late stages of pregnancy. There were all kinds of people who simply have just vanished without a trace.
And the fact is that the relatives are terrified to continue making inquiries. They feel that they're going to be taken next if they press too hard.
ELEANOR HALL: Of course this was in response to a deadly rampage by Uighurs in July this year which officials say killed almost 200 Han Chinese. Wasn't the Chinese Government justified in seeking to identify and deal with those responsible?
DINAH POKEMPNER: Oh absolutely. There's no doubt that there were tremendous loss of life and destruction of property on the side of the Han Chinese residents of Urumqi. And the Chinese Government does have a duty to investigate and take action.
But what we discovered was that the action taken was fairly indiscriminate.
ELEANOR HALL: You say that the families of these young men and boys are too frightened even to look for them. Were people reluctant to talk to Human Rights Watch?
DINAH POKEMPNER: It was very difficult to gather the information. And the people that we talked to are of course terrified and would not let us identify them.
It's a very difficult situation in which to do human rights research because the Chinese Government really doesn't invite any human rights monitors to come in and ask questions.
ELEANOR HALL: So how did you manage to conduct your research given the restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities?
DINAH POKEMPNER: We can't discuss our methodology but I can assure you that the information we collected was direct.
ELEANOR HALL: Interestingly the Chinese Government initially made it easy for the international media to cover this protest in July. How unusual was that and why do you think the authorities did it?
DINAH POKEMPNER: It was a very unusual turn of events and very welcome that they allowed the international press in.
That said, they didn't let them in very far. Journalists who tried to cover what had happened in other cities other than Urumqi were kept out or even themselves detained.
It, I think, is in response to the disaster of the 2008 Tibetan riots when China blocked all access and everyone reported the fears rather than the reality.
ELEANOR HALL: The Chinese Government hardened its crackdown on this ethnic group after 2001 and this year the Government began destroying the city of Kashgar. To what extent is tension between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese intensifying?
DINAH POKEMPNER: Well we think it's at a very high pitch right now. It's been a process of a number of years that China has systematically restricted the ability of Uighurs to follow their cultural and religious practices and life for ordinary Uighurs has got more and more difficult, more and more constrained. And at the same time Xinjiang itself has been the subject of massive Han migration and this has caused a great deal of resentment.
It does feel like things are at fever pitch and that the slightest match will set all the kindling afire.
ELEANOR HALL: Even with the Chinese Government cracking down to the degree that you're suggesting they are?
DINAH POKEMPNER: Yes. I think that there is certainly the potential for further unrest. We just may not see it unless it's very big.
We found it one of the most challenging places to get information and to do research.
ELEANOR HALL: Now you're calling on the Chinese Government to account for all those that it has in custody and to agree to an international investigation of the July violence and its aftermath. You surely don't have much confidence that the Chinese will comply do you?
DINAH POKEMPNER: We hope that they will. We hope that this will be something that they realise is not the kind of practice that can continue if China really does aspire to global leadership.
Unfortunately it is the practice of China. There has been a long record of these kinds of unacknowledged detentions, trials without due process. China doesn't handle mass protests well so we do fear that this is going to, you know, follow a pattern.
But we hope that China, which is increasingly taking note of its human rights obligations and trying to take the stage as a leader of the international community, will really stand up and say, you know, we must change. We must change practices.
ELEANOR HALL: You're also calling for more action from the international community. What do you want on that front?
DINAH POKEMPNER: We want all of China's partners, diplomatic and trade partners to really express great concern about how this is coming through.
The admission of the press into Xinjiang was a really good first step. But we can't say that things have gone well when China behaves like the most brutal regimes in disappearing its own citizens.
ELEANOR HALL: That's Dinah PoKempner, the general counsel for Human Rights Watch, which has just released its report on the Chinese response to this year's Han-Uighur riots.