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Exile Groups Accuse China of Treating Uighurs as Terrorists


Exile groups from a predominantly Muslim area of China say the Beijing government is using the international war on terrorism as an excuse to wipe out the ethnic Uighur minority. Some Uighurs accuse China of tearing down their neighborhoods in Chinese cities.

During recent meetings in Beijing, U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator J. Cofer Black and Chinese officials discussed ways to stop the financing of international terrorists. Ambassador Black praised China's cooperation and said they also talked about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uighur separatist group designated by Washington as a terrorist organization. ETIM advocates independence for China's predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region.

A specialist on China and Central Asia, James Millward, says Beijing has been concerned about radical Uighur groups for many years.

"China has been very concerned about expatriate Uighurs funneling money or otherwise becoming involved in activities that they oppose in Xinjiang," said Mr. Millward. "... There is a good deal of concern about certain groups, and indeed last year China released a White Paper detailing activities of many groups. They spelled out several different groups and activities that they have participated in, including some bombings and assassinations and so on over the last 10 years."

The Chinese white paper said various Uighur groups have been responsible for more than 200 terrorist incidents in Xinjiang over the previous decade, resulting in the deaths of 162 people.

Mr. Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University, says it is an exaggeration to say that China sees all Uighurs as terrorists, but he says China has tried to blur the distinction between separatism and terrorism. He says the U.S. concern about radical Muslim groups after the September 11 attacks gave China an opportunity to seek international support for its crackdown on Uighur movements.

China denies it is using the war on terrorism as a pretext for a crackdown on Uighurs. But Nury Turkel, the general secretary of the Uighur American Association, says by branding one Uighur group, the ETIM, as a terrorist organization, China has made all 10 million Uighur people suspect.

"China is using this international war on terrorism as an excuse to implement its long policy to annihilate Uighurs, possibly destroy their culture, which they are doing now, to suppress the Uighur movement, and most of all to stop the Uighur independence movement [from] becoming an internationally recognized movement," he said.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, China has been aggressive in rounding up suspected activists in Xinjiang. Many have been released, but an unknown number are still being held.

Uighur groups in exile say China is using the anti-terrorism campaign to try to destroy the Uighur culture by burning Uighur language books and tearing down old Uighur buildings in Kashgar, the largest city in far western Xinjiang. The president of the World Uighur Youth Congress, Mohemet Tohti, has written a letter to UNESCO, urging the U.N. organization to send a delegation to Kashgar to prevent the destruction of Uighur historic sites.

News reports from Beijing say demolition crews have been tearing down the last of the so-called Xinjiang neighborhoods in the Chinese capital. The reports say authorities then put the people on trains to Xinjiang. Mr. Turkel of the Uighur American Association says this is part of China's effort to remove Uighur Muslims from Chinese cities.

"The Uighurs are not assembling to do anything against the government in the area," Mr. Turkel said. "I personally have been there and spent some time with my fellow Uighur people. I went there to have some type of cultural, social gatherings with my people, because that's the only area that Uighurs go to talk to each other, to eat, have tea, talk about their homeland, talk about their life experience. It's nothing as the Chinese sees it as a threat."

Professor Millward says he does not know if the motives are political. He says Uighurs are not the only ones caught up in urban renewal campaigns going on in Beijing and other Chinese cities.

"Anyone who's been to Beijing periodically over the last few years will have noted the tremendous changes," Professor Millward said. "And for the most part low, one-story structures, poorly built structures are being torn down and larger, newer buildings are being put up in their place. And a lot of people have been displaced by this, including many Chinese."

Professor Millward says poor Uighurs as well as poor Chinese now must look for housing further outside Beijing, because the close-in areas have become too expensive.

But he adds that Uighurs in Beijing face additional difficulties, because landlords and officials who control renting and business licenses have been reluctant to rent to them. Professor Millward says this is partly due to ethnic stereotypes which the majority Han Chinese people hold about the Uighurs.

"But there is also now a concern that Uighurs are terrorists, or likely to be violent or involved in illegal activities, he said. "And some of this is indeed probably fueled by very prominent public concerns coming from the government about Uighur groups."

Therefore, Professor Millward says, even though most Uighurs are not terrorists, the government's labeling of Uighur separatists as terrorists has led to serious civil rights discrimination against the Uighur people.

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