Ethnic Uighurs seeking asylum in Bulgaria should not be repatriated back to China the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) urged on Thursday, saying that doing so would put them at risk of persecution and that Bulgaria would violate its obligations as a member of the European Union.
Under Articles 2 and 3 of the EU Convention on Human Rights, the court, based in Strasbourg, France, said in its ruling that forcefully repatriating the Uighurs to China, or sending them to a third country that can’t guarantee them safe harbour, would violate their right to life and put them at risk of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.
The ECHR cited the Uighur’s’ complaints that if returned to China they would face “persecution, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention,” as well as the possibility of execution, and ruled “not to remove the applicants” from the country.
Authorities in north-western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are believed to have detained some 1.8 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harbouring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uighurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Thursday’s ruling applied to five Uyghur applicants who fled the XUAR to Turkey between 2013 and 2015, and relocated to Bulgaria in July 2017, where they applied for asylum but were rejected by the States Refugee Agency in a decision that was upheld by the Haskovo Administrative Court in January 2018.
In its rejection of their appeal, the administrative court cited what it said was their failure to prove that they had fled persecution back home, and that same month the head of Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security ordered their expulsion on national security grounds.
Another appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Administrative Court in May last year, and Bulgaria’s government later revealed that the final ruling was made based on arguments by the State Agency for National Security that at least three of the applicants could pose a threat to country because of their links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which was considered to be a terrorist group.
On Sept. 3, 2003, the U.S. placed ETIM on the Treasury Department’s list of terrorist organizations, but by the end of the year determined that the Guantanamo detainees were not security risks and eventually allowed all of them to be resettled to third countries, where they were not at risk of persecution by the Chinese government.
In 2009, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government had failed to present sufficient evidence that ETIM was linked to either Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and while the group remains on the Treasury Department’s terror list, there is little to suggest that it has made significant inroads in China, nor that what limited amount of Uighur radicalization exists in the country presents a significant security risk.
ECHR noted in its ruling that exile groups the World Uighur Congress (WUC) and the International Uighur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation, as well as London-based rights group Amnesty International and several members of the European Parliament, have asked Bulgaria not to remove the applicants.
The ECHR had also indicated to Bulgaria in January 2018 that the Uighurs should not be expelled while it was reviewing their case.
Two of the five original applicants have since left Bulgaria willingly, and Thursday’s ruling did not apply to them. (Source: RFA)