The four-day independent tribunal, aimed to establish whether China’s alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang constitute genocide is being held in London.
An eight-member panel acted as a jury and chaired by the prominent British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice has started to hear testimonies from about 30 witnesses.
The first witness to give evidence on day one of the hearing was Qelbinur Sidik, a woman employed to teach Mandarin language classes at a men’s camp in Xinjiang in 2016.
“Guards in the camp did not treat the prisoners as human beings. They were treated less than dogs,” she said through an interpreter.
Other witnesses were expected to give evidence over the next four days, including a woman who claimed she was forced into an abortion at six months pregnant and a former detainee who said he was “tortured day and night” by Chinese soldiers inside one of the camps.
The hearings have no government backing and the panel’s conclusions are not binding on ministers, but the organisers say they hope the process will add to the body of evidence around the allegations against China.
Sir Geoffrey had previously led the prosecution of ex-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and worked with the International Criminal Court.
The panel consists of academics, lawyers, and a former British diplomat. In selecting its members, the organisers intentionally drew from a mix of disciplines and avoided China experts to avoid a risk of prejudgment, Sir Geoffrey said.
The hearings, branded by organisers as the Uyghur Tribunal, were arranged by the London-based businessman Nick Vetch. Mr. Vetch was previously involved with similar hearings in 2019 that examined allegations of organ harvesting in China.
The Chinese state has been accused of crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang, a large region in the country’s northwest which is home to the Uyghurs and other minority Muslim groups.
Experts say that at least a million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in the region and held in extra-judicial camps or sent to prisons. Former detainees and residents of Xinjiang have made allegations of torture, mass surveillance, and forced sterilisation.
China denies that abuses are taking place, and says its network of camps in Xinjiang is for “re-education” and vocational training purposes.
Xu Guixiang, the spokesman for the Xinjiang regional government, called the hearings a “total violation of international law and order, a serious desecration of the victims of real genocide, and a serious provocation to the 25 million people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang”.
A dozen experts have been invited to give evidence at the hearings, including Dr. Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Denver, Colorado; Dr. Jo Smith Finley, a reader in Chinese Studies at Newcastle University; Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; and Adrian Zenz, who has published reports on forced labour and abortion in Xinjiang.
Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, will also give evidence. Mr. Isa told the BBC that the privately-organised hearings were the only option available for investigating China’s actions in Xinjiang because the two international courts which might otherwise take up a case had no plans to do so.
The International Criminal Court announced in December it would not investigate because China, as a non-member, was outside of its jurisdiction, and the International Court of Justice can only take a case that has been approved by the UN Security Council, over which China has veto power.
Mr. Isa, who believes his mother died while in detention in Xinjiang, and who discovered this week that his brother had been sentenced to life in prison there, said he hoped the hearings would force politicians to “pay more attention”.
Another witness, the prominent Uyghur scholar and activist Abduweli Ayup, told the BBC the hearings were “a platform to tell our stories”.
Mr. Ayup said he would be thinking about his niece Mihray Erkin while he gave evidence. Ms. Erkin was a graduate from Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University and Tokyo University and went on to join the staff of Japan’s Nara Institute of Science and Technology. In 2019, she returned to Xinjiang after authorities put pressure on her parents, Mr. Ayup said.
She is believed to have died in November, aged 30, in Yanbulak Detention Center in Xinjiang. Reports of her death were confirmed in May by Radio Free Asia.
“If there is a question about my niece I will be happy to answer it. That is the personal side, the suffering,” Mr. Ayup said.
The US State Department has previously described China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide, and the parliaments of the UK, Canada, Netherlands, and Lithuania have passed resolutions making the same declaration. (Source: BBC/Sky News)