The United States has removed from its list of “terrorist” groups a shadowy faction regularly blamed by China to justify its harsh crackdown in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region.
In a notice in the Federal Register, which publishes new US laws and rules, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was revoking the designation of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a “terrorist organisation”.
“ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist,” a State Department spokesperson said.
The administration of George W Bush in 2004 added ETIM, also sometimes called the Turkestan Islamic Party, to a blacklist as it found common cause with China in the so-called US-led “war on terror”.
Beijing has regularly blamed ETIM for attacks as it justifies its measures in Xinjiang, where rights groups say one million or more Uighurs or other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim people are held in camps.
But analysts say China has produced little evidence that ETIM is an organised group, or that it is to blame for attacks in Xinjiang, which separatists call East Turkestan.
The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project called the State Department’s decision “long overdue” and a “definitive rejection of China’s claims”.
“The harmful effects of China’s exploitation of the imagined ‘ETIM’ threat are real – 20 years of state terror directed at Uighurs,” said the group’s executive director, Omer Kanat.
“This long-overdue decision is a definitive rejection of China’s claims,” says Omer Kanat.https://t.co/xrDVojfpqN
— Uyghur Human Rights Project (@UyghurProject) November 6, 2020
But China’s foreign ministry spokesman on Friday expressed China’s “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the US decision”, urging the US to “stop backpedalling on international counterterrorism cooperation”.
China has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where the native Uighurs have long resented Beijing’s heavy-handed rule. With the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, officials began using the spectre of “terrorism” to justify harsher religious restrictions, saying young Uighurs were susceptible to violent “extremism”.
‘Stain of the century’
While analysts have doubted the role of ETIM, China has suffered a series of attacks that authorities blamed on Uighur separatists.
In 2014, assailants stabbed to death 31 passengers at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming.
In 2009, hundreds died in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in riots that largely targeted China’s majority Han.
Activists say China is trying to forcibly integrate Uighurs by indoctrinating them with Communist ideology and making them renounce Islamic customs.
Pompeo has previously called the mass detention “the stain of the century” and US senators across party lines are seeking to declare China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide.
ETIM was listed on the US Terrorism Exclusion List, which affects the entry of people into the country, but was never hit with the tougher designation of Foreign Terrorist Organisation.