Uighur exiles urged the International Criminal Court on Monday to investigate Beijing for genocide and crimes against humanity, the first attempt to use international law to hold China's ruling Communist Party accountable for its draconian crackdown on the Muslim minority.
A team of London-based lawyers representing two Uighur activist groups has filed a complaint against Beijing for pursuing the repatriation of thousands of Uighurs through unlawful arrests in or deportation from Cambodia and Tajikistan. The case could bring greater international scrutiny of the Chinese state's power to impose its will beyond its borders.
The lawyers' 80-page filing includes a list of more than 30 Chinese officials they said were responsible for the campaign, including Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader.
Xi's policies over recent years have put Muslim minorities in China's western region of Xinjiang under a pervasive net of surveillance, detention and social re-engineering. As many as a million ethnic Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps in the region, drawing growing global condemnation.
The court's mandate is to seek justice for victims of genocide, war crimes and other atrocities. But China does not recognise its jurisdiction, raising the question of how far the case will go.
Rodney Dixon, a British lawyer leading the case, said it circumvented the issue of jurisdiction over Beijing by focusing on claims of unlawful acts by China in Cambodia and Tajikistan, two countries that are members of the court.
"This can become a critical case because for so long it has been assumed that nothing could be done to hold China accountable at an international court," Dixon said by telephone from London before travelling to The Hague.
Citing a 2018 ruling by the court, Dixon said, "The court has said it has jurisdiction when crimes start or end in a member state, and that is the case here."
The 2018 ruling was applied to Myanmar, which has also not signed on to the court's treaty. The court ruled that it could prosecute Myanmar for "deportation" and associated crimes against Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh, which is a member.
The two Uighur groups that filed the complaint against China are the East Turkistan Government in Exile and the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement. The groups advocate independence for Xinjiang, a region they refer to not by its official Chinese name but as East Turkestan, the name of two short-lived Uighur republics.
Their complaint also broadly takes aim at China's policies in Xinjiang over the past decade and the imposition of increasingly harsh security measures following a spate of violent unrest. The Uighurs have long resented the tight controls imposed by authorities on their religion and culture and the influx of Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China, into Xinjiang.
Under Xi, the Xinjiang government expanded efforts to cajole, pressure or force Uighurs to return from abroad, and also established the internment camps intended to indoctrinate Uighurs to turn away from religion and embrace Chinese rule. It has imposed programs pushing minorities into jobs as factory workers and street cleaners.
Authorities are also pursuing an expansive and troubling campaign to drastically reduce the birthrate among minority groups in Xinjiang using forced sterilisation and abortions, according to an investigation by The Associated Press and Adrian Zenz, a German researcher.
Dixon, the British lawyer, said the complaint against Beijing included evidence of forced deportations and extraterritorial arrests by Chinese agents, gathered from witnesses and victims, reports from the United Nations and organizations such as Amnesty International and exile groups.
"The prosecutor needs to investigate genocide," Dixon said. "If you capture people, and you have a campaign to suppress them and you sterilise them, it is a campaign which intends to dilute and destroy their identity as a group."
It may take months before the international court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, issues a formal response to the lawyers' filing.
China's foreign ministry had no immediate comment on the complaint. But the Chinese government has repeatedly rejected the evidence of widespread repression of minorities in Xinjiang.
"Xinjiang fully implements the policy of freedom of religious belief," the ministry said last week in a long rebuttal to recent criticism of China's human rights record. "Xinjiang has never curtailed the freedom of travel of Uighur people or people of any other ethnic groups."
China's response to the filing may mirror that of the Trump administration in cases that have involved Americans. The administration has fiercely attacked the international court for initiating an investigation of possible war crimes by US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as "a kangaroo court," and President Donald Trump called for economic penalties and travel restrictions to be imposed on court employees participating in investigations of Americans.
Marlise Simons c.2020 The New York Times Company