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July 8, 2004

China Uses 'War on Terror' to Justify Rights Violations

by Jim Lobe

MONTREAL - Another government has seized the opportunity presented by Washington's "war on terrorism" to justify violating the human rights of its citizens, says a report released Wednesday by Amnesty International (AI).

China has detained tens of thousands of people in the northwest Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks on New York and the Pentagon, using "anti-terrorism" as its motive, says the report, "Uighurs Fleeing Persecution as China Wages its War on Terror."

"Repression has continued in the region over the last two years, in the context of an ongoing political and security crackdown against the so-called 'three evils' of 'separatists, terrorists and religious extremists,' as China continues to use 'anti-terrorism' as a pretext to suppress all forms of political or religious dissent in the region," adds the document.

U.S. President George W. Bush launched his "war on terrorism" by attacking Afghanistan in October 2001, blaming that country's Taliban regime and its associates in the al-Qaeda terrorist group for the airborne 9/11 strikes that killed more than 3,000 people in the United States.

In its pursuit of the "war," the Bush administration has passed a number of questionable legal measures to broaden the powers of U.S. security agencies and has ignored internationally recognized legal norms, such as when it attacked Iraq without the support of the United Nations Security Council in March 2003.

Bush justified launching that particular campaign on the need to seize nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) allegedly held by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But more than a year later, those weapons are yet to be found.

As early as 2002, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) was reporting that several countries were using Washington's war on terror as a cloak to hide increasing rights violations.

It singled out Russia, Uzbekistan and Egypt as the main offenders, but said Israel, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe were also using similar tactics.

It is difficult to know if more governments today are hiding behind the excuse of terrorism to justify repression, HRW lawyer Reed Brody told IPS on Wednesday, saying, "It has become almost a permanent part of the landscape."

He added that the phenomenon has various implications: governments are using it to label opponents "terrorists" and treat them unlawfully, while the United States has lost its legitimacy as an authority on human rights and justice.

"And then you see it play out in how other countries lower their voices because of the war on terror," added Brody. For instance, "(Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Chechnya got off the hook this year at the UN rights commission. People are not going to be looking as closely at (countries') records if they're aligning with the war on terror."

That could change, he suggested, if Washington severely cracks down on the officials responsible for torture of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. "If the United States would actually get to the bottom of it and prosecute more than just the foot soldiers, I think it might set an example."

Two senior Justice Department officials have already resigned over the scandal after it was revealed that political appointees within the administration drafted memos arguing that Bush had the authority to treat "enemy combatants" in the war on terror without regard to the Geneva Conventions and other international law.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court curtailed the war on terror when it ruled the administration could not hold U.S. prisoners in a special prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba without granting them the legal rights guaranteed in the constitution, and that foreign prisoners had a right to challenge their detentions in a U.S. court.

AI reports that repression of the ethnic Uighur community, most of who are Muslim, has continued since mass protests and violent riots in XUAR in 1990.

"Over the last three years, tens of thousands of people are reported to have been detained for investigation in the region and hundreds, possibly thousands, have been charged or sentenced under the criminal law; many Uighurs are believed to have been sentenced to death and executed for alleged 'separatist' or 'terrorist' offences, although the exact number is impossible to determine."

The report also says many of those arrested – although it is impossible to glean exact numbers – are prisoners of conscience "detained solely for engaging in peaceful acts of freedom of expression, association or other rights."

Included in the repression is growing pressure from Beijing on the governments of nearby states to forcibly return so-called "separatists" or "terrorists," adds AI. One such case involved Uighur activist Shaheer Ali, who was returned from Nepal after having been granted status as a United Nations refugee in that country, which borders China.

"The exact date of Shaheer Ali's execution is unclear, but he was reportedly sentenced to death in March 2003 after being convicted of various offences including 'separatism', 'organizing and leading a terrorist organization', and 'illegal manufacture, trading and possession of weapons and explosives,'" according to the report.

Among its recommendations, Amnesty calls on China to stop pressuring other states to return Uighurs to their homeland. It also urges the nation's neighbors and the United States to ensure that Uighur asylum seekers are given the full protection of international law and to "express concern about the extensive human rights violations currently taking place in the XUAR."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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