Countries must impose sanctions on China over the mass detention of ethnic Uighurs in its western Xinjiang region, hundreds of scholars said, warning that a failure to act would signal acceptance of “psychological torture of innocent civilians”.
At a briefing in Washington, DC, on Monday, representatives of a group of 278 scholars in various disciplines from dozens of countries called on China to end its detention policies, and for sanctions directed at key Chinese leaders and security companies linked to abuses.
“This situation must be addressed to prevent setting negative future precedents regarding the acceptability of any state’s complete repression of a segment of its population, especially on the basis of ethnicity or religion,” the group said in a statement.
Countries should expedite asylum requests from Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities, as well as “spearhead a movement for UN action aimed at investigating this mass internment system and closing the camps”, it said.
In August, a United Nations human rights panel said it had received credible reports that one million or more Uighurs and other minorities were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy” in its far western region.
The scholars’ call came as a member of the Uighur minority, who arrived in the US in September, detailed the abuse she said she suffered in one internment camp.
Mihrigul Tursun said she was interrogated for four days without sleep, had her hair shaved and was subjected to an intrusive medical examination following her second arrest in China in 2017. After she was arrested a third time, the treatment became worse.
“I thought that I would rather die than go through this torture and begged them to kill me,” Tursun, 29, told reporters at the National Press Club.
Born in China, Tursun moved to Egypt to study English at a university where she met her husband.
In 2015, after travelling to China to spend time with her family, Tursun was arrested, separated from her young children, and kept in detention for three months. She is convinced her children – triplets – were operated on while she was detained because one died and the others developed health problems.
Tursun was arrested for a second time about two years later and, when she was detained a third time, she spent three months in a prison cell with 60 other women having to sleep in turns, use the toilet in front of security cameras and sing songs praising China’s Communist Party.
Tursun said she and other inmates were forced to take unknown medication, including pills that made them faint and a white liquid that caused bleeding in some women and loss of menstruation in others. Tursun said nine women from her cell died during her three months there.
One day, Tursun recalled, she was led into a room, placed in a high chair and had her legs and arms locked in place.
“The authorities put a helmet-like thing on my head and each time I was electrocuted my whole body would shake violently and I would feel the pain in my veins,” Tursun said in a statement read by a translator.
“I don’t remember the rest. White foam came out of my mouth, and I began to lose consciousness,” Tursun said. “The last word I heard them saying is that you being Uighur is a crime.”
She was eventually released so she could take her children to Egypt but was ordered to return to China. Tursun contacted US authorities in Cairo and settled in Virginia in September.
China rejects criticism of its actions in Xinjiang, saying it protects the religion and culture of minorities and that its security measures are needed to combat the influence of “extremist” groups.
The country’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said the world should ignore “gossip” about Xinjiang and trust the government in Beijing.
But after initial denials about the detention camps, Chinese officials have said some people guilty of minor offences were being sent to “vocational” training centres to be taught work skills and legal knowledge aimed at curbing militancy.
Michael Clarke, a Xinjiang expert at Australian National University who signed the scholars’ statement, told reporters that China sought international respect for its weight in global affairs.
“The international community needs to demonstrate to Beijing that it will not actually get that while it’s doing this to a significant portion of its own citizenry,” Clarke said.