Uyghur rights groups file criminal case in Argentina against China

The action could spur an investigation of whether China's policies against Uyghurs in Xinjiang constitute genocide.
By Alim Seytoff and Jewlan for RFA Uyghur
2022.08.17
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Uyghur rights groups file criminal case in Argentina against China Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project; Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress; and Michael Polak, director of Justice Abroad, stand outside the courthouse in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they submitted a criminal case against China for allegedly committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Aug. 17, 2022.
Photo courtesy of Justice Abroad

Lawyers acting on behalf of two Uyghur rights groups filed a criminal case in an Argentine court on Wednesday alleging that China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its repressive policies targeting Muslims in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region.

The Justice Abroad law firm, on behalf of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), submitted the official criminal complaint to a Buenos Aires court under universal jurisdiction provisions set out in Argentina’s Constitution.

The provisions allow the country’s criminal courts to investigate and try international crimes, such as genocide, torture and crimes against humanity wherever they occur in the world and render judgments.

"The criminal complaint has real and symbolic significance,” Dolkun Isa of WUC said Thursday at a news conference. “While the heads of state may enjoy immunity from any questioning and criminal liability while in office, they can be held accountable after holding office. They can even be arrested during international travels for their crimes.”

Rights groups, the international media, and witnesses and survivors have put forward credible testimony and evidence that Chinese authorities have been committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang since 2017 when they began arbitrarily detaining people in a vast network of “re-education” camps and in prisons, despite no evidence they had committed crimes.

China claimed the facilities were “vocational training centers” meant to prevent religious extremism and radicalism and later said they had been closed. It is believed that authorities have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others accused of harboring “strong religious” and “politically incorrect” views in the camps. There is also evidence that some of the detainees were subjected to forced labor, torture, sexual assault, and forced sterilizations and abortions.

Though the United States and the legislatures of several Western countries have deemed China’s mistreatment of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the Xinjiang as genocide and crimes against humanity, the repression has continued.

“This is a historical moment for the Uyghur people and their pursuit of justice for the most horrendous international crimes being committed against them by the Chinese authorities,” international law barrister Michael Polak said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

“The mantra ‘never again’ or ‘nunca mas’ has been repeated for many years yet we have a genocide and crimes against humanity being committed against a religious and ethnic group in 2022 in an attempt to rob the Uyghurs of their rich culture and identity,” said Polak, who is the director of U.K.-based Justice Abroad and chairman of Lawyers for Uyghur Rights.

Domestic courts are filling a void created by the failure of the United Nations Security Council, due to vetoes by China and Russia, to establish international tribunals to investigate such crimes, Polak said.

Polak and Argentine lawyers Gabriel Cavallo and Juan Nieto, who have experience using Argentina’s courts to deliver justice for the victims of international crimes, are representing WUC and UHRP.

'Nowhere to hide' 

A judge will now be selected to review the criminal complaint along with submissions from the public prosecutor to determine whether to open a case. 

If a case is opened and an investigation begins, WUC and UHRP must submit evidence demonstrating genocide, crimes against humanity and torture have occurred against Uyghurs and other Turkic groups in Xinjiang. With such evidence, the judge can indict defendants, issue arrest warrants and send the case to trial.

“Our case demonstrates that there is nowhere to hide for regimes responsible for atrocity crimes,” Omer Kanat, executive director of UHRP, said in a statement.

If international courts such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court are unable or unwilling to examine evidence of the crimes, then national courts must begin to bring cases against China, he said.

Dolkun Isa of the World Uyghur Congress said in a statement that the submission of the criminal complaint in Argentina is “a crucial step towards the long-overdue justice for the Uyghur people, and the holding to account of those responsible.

“For years, Uyghurs have been looking to the international legal justice mechanisms to make a determination on the genocide being committed, but so far these have failed us,” he said in the statement. “This criminal complaint would be a historic occasion for Uyghurs to have their voices heard within a formal domestic court.”

In December 2021, a Uyghur Tribunal, led my British jurist Geoffrey Nice, issued a nonbinding verdict that China had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs after hearing evidence from internment camp survivors and experts on the region.

Days after the Dec. 9 decision, WUC and UHRP said they were preparing to submit a criminal complaint to an Argentine court with international jurisdiction, laying out alleged crimes committed against Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang region, according to an earlier RFA report.

Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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