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March 3, 2024

Lawmakers, rights groups condemn Xinjiang official’s possible visit to Europe

European parliamentarians and human rights groups have strongly objected to a visit to the United Kingdom and Europe Union next week by the China-installed Uyghur leader of Xinjiang, saying that he has played a key role in the persecution of the mostly Muslim minority group.

The UK’s The Guardian reported Wednesday that Erkin Tuniyaz, a Chinese politician of Uyghur origin who is chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in far-western China, would visit London and meet with high-level officials to discuss the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The news outlet cited an email the Foreign Office sent to campaigners. 

Erkin, in office since Sept. 30, 2021, is also the deputy secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xinjiang Committee, and has held other top positions in the Xinjiang government. 

Foreign Office Minister Leo Docherty told British lawmakers on Thursday that the government had not invited Erkin to the UK and that it had “no confirmation that he will in fact, travel,” Reuters reported Thursday.

If Erkin does visit, he may meet with officials from the Foreign Office, Dockerty said.

“We’ve judged this might be an opportunity to send a very strong message to someone who is involved in the governance of Xinjiang,” said Docherty, according to Reuters, adding that “under no circumstances would he be dignified with a ministerial meeting.”

Erkin is scheduled to arrive in the UK on Sunday, Feb. 12, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project based in Washington, D.C. He will then visit Brussels on Feb. 19-21 to meet with representatives from the European External Action Service, the diplomatic service and combined foreign and defense ministry of the European Union.

The possible trip comes amid condemnation of China by Western countries, including the UK, for grave human rights abuses involving Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang in recent years under a government crackdown to prevent terrorism and religious extremism in the restive region.

Erkin has defended Chinese policies

Among Uyghur activist groups, Erkin is widely regarded as a traitor and puppet of Beijing.

The World Uyghur Congress pointed out that Erkin has defended China’s policies in Xinjiang in the past, including in a video address to the United Nations in February 2021, during which he said the vast network of “re-education” camps in the region where Uyghurs were interned “educated and rehabilitated people influenced by religious extremism.” 

“By setting up vocational education and training centers in accordance with the law, we aim to educate and save those who were influenced by religious extremism and committed minor legal offenses,” Erkin told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2019.

The U.S. government, UK lawmakers and eight other Western parliaments have declared that the abuses, including torture, sterilizations of Uyghur woman, and forced labor, amount to genocide and crimes against humanity.

The U.N.’s office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, said in an August 2022 report that China’s policies may constitute crimes against humanity.

Rahima Mahmut, a Uyghur singer and UK director of the World Uyghur Congress, or WUC, called on the UK government to cancel Erkin’s intended visit to London, but added that authorities should arrest and prosecute him if he does enter the country.

“He should be questioned about the crimes against humanity and genocide committed by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs,” she told Radio Free Asia.

When asked Friday about Erkin’s trip, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said she was not aware of the visit. But she added: “We hope the UK will look at Xinjiang’s strong socioeconomic development in an objective light, stop using Xinjiang-related issues for political manipulation and stop meddling in China’s internal affairs.”

‘No legitimate reason’

Members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and Uyghur advocacy groups argue that Erkin, 61, should not visit the UK because of his involvement in and justification of the Chinese government’s severe mistreatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

British parliamentarian Alicia Kearns, who chairs the China Research Group set up by a group of Conservative MPs in the UK to promote new ideas on how Britain should respond to China’s rise, said there was “no legitimate reason to allow Erkin Tuniyaz into our country — the only meetings with him should be in a courtroom.”

The U.S. government sanctioned Erkin in December 2021 for his complicity as one of the key officials overseeing the mass arbitrary detention of 1.8 million Uyghurs and other serious human rights abuses committed in Xinjiang during the past six years. Under the designation, he is subject to a U.S. travel ban, an asset freeze and exclusion from the American banking system. 

The UK sanctioned Erkin’s deputy, Xinjiang government vice chair Chen Minguo, in March 2021, but not Erkin, who “bears even greater responsibility for atrocity crimes under international standards,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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