“Kneel and praise China, or starve”: Uyghur Tribunal Day One

Updated: Sep 11

Image credit: Lily Vetch, Uyghur Tribunal

The Uyghur Tribunal reconvened on Friday 10th September, for the first day of its second set of hearings. The tribunal will hear evidence to make an independent determination as to whether the People’s Republic of China are perpetrating a genocide against the Uyghur people. This first day served as a poignant reminder of what this tribunal signifies: a chance for survivors of Uyghur persecution to be heard, and an opportunity for the public to call nations and governments to action.

Since the first round of hearings concluded in June, the PRC have made efforts to discredit the legitimacy of the proceedings. Days after the initial hearings the PRC presented family members and friends of survivors at a press conference where, under duress and threat of harm, they rejected and denied the horrific evidence given by their relations.

Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Chair of the Uyghur Tribunal, opened the proceedings by stressing the significance of the tribunal’s existence. He reiterated that the PRC were repeatedly contacted for comment in the period between the two sets of hearings and failed to respond: a stark contrast to the public denouncements made by Chinese officials on numerous occasions, dismissing the tribunal as “nothing but lies and disinformation”.

Sir Geoffrey emphasised that these allegations of gross abuses by the PRC have attracted world-wide interest and concern, as basic human rights are being invalidated, ignored and eradicated:

“For a right to be universal, it is a right that has to be enjoyed anywhere in the world. And a right always has a duty”

The first witness of the day, Mehray Mezensof, gave evidence on the experiences and treatment of her husband, who had been imprisoned in a Xinjiang detainment camp. Mrs Mezensof described the systematic classification of prisoners by colour: green vests for prisoners deemed not to be dangerous or threatening, and orange for political prisoners. She described the torture that her husband underwent during his time in the camp; subjected to sit in the ‘tiger chair’ whenever interrogated by Chinese officials. Prisoners were forced to kneel before a hatch in the door of their cell and sing a song in praise of China three times a day, in order to receive food. As Sir Geoffrey Nice QC reiterated:

“Kneel and praise China, or starve”

Upon his release, Ms Mezensof’s husband was told that he had ‘graduated’ from the camp. The suggestion that prisoners must work to earn or achieve something as fundamental as basic human freedom, is indicative of the PRC’s terrifying intention to re-educate and assimilate the Uyghur population.

Ms Mezensof was reduced to tears when describing the long-term psychological damage that her husband suffered as a result of his ordeal. But she exhibited pride in her assertion that her husband could never be truly broken by the PRC:

“He never lost who he was at all. You can’t just erase someone’s identity”

Dr Elise Anderson, Senior Program Officer for Research and Advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, discussed how the ‘Qaraqash List’ has helped to understand why Uyghur prisoners had been detained, with birth policy violations accounting for the highest number of detentions.

Image from presentation given by Dr Anderson via Uyghur Tribunal Live Stream

Dr Anderson described the use of “intense and intrusive” systems of surveillance: even ‘free’ Uyghurs (those not imprisoned in camps/detention facilities) are subjected to constant surveillance, with their faces, bodies and even the content of their phones being scanned and documented.

The Uyghur people in Xinjiang are treated as suspicious for a multitude of reasons, even simply being born in the 1980s, 90s or 2000s. Dr Anderson emphasised her own inference about the PRC’s motivations for committing such atrocities, suggesting the Chinese government is “deeply anxious about its governance in the region”, due to a resistance to assimilation by the Uyghurs and other Turkic minority in the region, that has been ongoing for decades. The PRC exhibits an effort to totally suppress all aspects of Uyghur culture, as Dr Anderson relayed:

“Many, if not all, expressions of distinct religious and cultural identity are at the very least suspicious, if not outright criminal”

Abdulhakim Idris, Inspector General of the World Uyghur Congress, discussed China’s global investments in relation to the Belt and Road Initiative, and how the Uyghurs have been affected by China’s pursuit of Neo-Colonialism through trade. Citing Xinjiang as a focal point of the BRI, Mr Idris described the initiative as a “tool to silence critics and placate governments”. While a number of countries have been financially induced into silence by the scheme, China has been strengthened and emboldened.

Mr Idris described the persecution of Uyghurs as “war on an entire religion”.

The collection of testimony delivered in this first session raised many themes that are vital in understanding the complexity of Uyghur persecution: interogation and torture as a form of silencing and control, the intentional prevention of births, attempts to erode all traces of Uyghur culture, and an emphasis on the so-called policy of ‘re-education’. Revealing, compelling and shocking, the evidence raises as many questions as it answers: how does the West begin to challenge a nation as powerful as China, and, above all, are they willing to?

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.

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