The U.S. state department, in an order issued on Oct. 20 and made public Thursday, has removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of terrorist organisations after nearly two decades.
The move by the U.S. government is seen as a way of weakening China’s anti-terror pretext for a draconian crackdown on Uyghurs in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the group had been removed from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
“I hereby revoke the designation of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, also known as ETIM, as a ‘terrorist organization,’” the order reads.
East Turkestan is the name preferred by Uyghurs to refer to their traditional homeland in the XUAR.
China regularly refers to Uyghur activists in exile as members of ETIM as part of a bid to discredit their claims of on-going rights abuses in the region.
Chinese authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.
The Chinese Communist Party also uses the group to prop up its narrative that Uyghurs in the XUAR lead happy lives under Beijing’s rule, while ETIM promotes separatism and remotely commands attacks within China from abroad.
Beginning in October 2018, Beijing acknowledged the existence of the camps, but described them as voluntary “vocational centres”.
The ETIM decision follows a series of measures undertaken by the Trump administration to hold China accountable for its violations in the XUAR.
At the end of July, the U.S. levelled sanctions against the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC) and two of its current and former officials over rights violations in the region.
Nury Turkel, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent U.S. federal government body, called the revocation “long overdue,” as the ETIM designation was “a strategic blunder” by the State Department.
“It is fair to say that China would not have been able to use the ‘counter-terrorism’ narrative—even to this day—to justify its genocidal policies against the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples if it was not for international communities’ mistake to allow Beijing to label ETIM and other Uyghur organizations as terrorist groups,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“We urge the U.N. and other nations to follow the U.S. lead and reject Beijing’s counter-terrorism claims to justify the atrocities committed against the Uyghur people.”
There was no immediate reaction from Beijing to the decision.
On Sept. 3, 2002, the U.S. placed ETIM on the Treasury Department’s list of terrorist organizations, but by the end of the year determined that its members were not security risks.
While the State Department’s decision removes ETIM from the U.S. government’s FTO list, the group continues to be designated a terrorist group by the United Nations and several other nations.
Observers have suggested that the group remains designated as the result of pressure from Beijing. (Source: RFA)