ISTANBUL (AP) – Three Uyghurs who fled China to Turkey have described forced abortions and torture by Chinese authorities in China’s far western Xinjiang region before testifying in a people’s court in London investigating whether Beijing’s actions against ethnic Uyghurs focus on genocide.
The three witnesses include a woman who said she was forced to have an abortion six and a half months pregnant, a former doctor who spoke of draconian birth control guidelines, and a former inmate who said he was “day and night” tortured by Chinese soldiers while detained in the remote border region.
They spoke to The Associated Press about their experience before videolinking testimony before the independent British tribunal, which is expected to draw dozens of witnesses when four days of trial open on Friday.
The tribunal, which is not supported by the UK government, is chaired by well-known human rights lawyer Geoffrey Nice, who led the prosecution of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and worked with the International Criminal Court.
Although the tribunal’s verdict is not binding on any government, the organizers hope that the public evidence process will force international action to address growing concerns over alleged abuses in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group.
A witness, mother of four Bumeryem Rozi, said the authorities in Xinjiang rounded her up with other pregnant women in 2007 to have their fifth child aborted. She said she obeyed because she feared that the authorities would otherwise confiscate her home and belongings and endanger her family.
“I was 6 1/2 months pregnant … The police came, one Uyghur and two Chinese. They put me and eight other pregnant women in cars and took us to the hospital, ”Rozi, 55, told the AP from her home in Istanbul.
“They gave me a pill first and told me to take it. So i did. I didn’t know what it was, ”she continued. “Half an hour later, they stuck a needle in my stomach. And at some point after that I lost my child. “
Semsinur Gafur, a former obstetrician and gynecologist who worked at a village hospital in Xinjiang in the 1990s, said she and other female clinicians went door-to-door with a portable ultrasound machine to check if anyone was pregnant.
“If a household had more births than allowed, they would tear the house down … They would flatten the house, destroy it,” said Gafur. “That was my life there. It was very stressful. And because I worked in a state hospital, people didn’t trust me. The Uyghurs saw me as a Chinese traitor. “
A third Uighur in exile, Mahmut Tevekkul, said he was detained and tortured in 2010 by Chinese authorities who interrogated him after hearing information about one of his brothers. Tevekkul said the brother was wanted because, among other things, he published a religious book in Arabic.
Tevekkul described being beaten and slapped in the face during interrogation.
“They laid us on a tiled floor, handcuffed our hands and feet, and tied us to a pipe like a gas pipe. Six soldiers guarded us. They interrogated us until morning and then took us to the high security area of the prison, ”he said.
The tribunal is the latest attempt to hold China accountable for alleged violations of rights against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim and ethnic Turkish minorities.
An estimated 1 million people or more – most of them Uyghurs – have been detained in re-education camps in Xinjiang in recent years, the researchers said. The Chinese authorities are charged with using forced labor, systematic forced birth control, and torture, and for separating children from imprisoned parents.
Beijing flatly denied the allegations. Officials have characterized the camps, which they say are now closed, as vocational training centers to teach Chinese language, professional skills, and the Law to Support Economic Development and Counter-Extremism. China saw a wave of terrorist attacks related to Xinjiang in 2016.
The organizers of the hearings said the Chinese authorities ignored requests to participate in the trial. The Chinese embassy in London did not respond to requests for comment, but officials in China said the tribunal was set up by “anti-Chinese forces” to spread lies.
“There is no genocide or forced labor in Xinjiang,” the region’s government spokesman Elijan Anayat told reporters on Thursday. “If the tribunal insists on going its own way, we want to express our strong condemnation and opposition, and we will be forced to take countermeasures.”
In April, the British Parliament declared, as in Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada, that Beijing’s anti-Uyghur policies amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity. So did the US government.
But Nice, the attorney who ran the tribunal, said these statements of genocide so far have been accompanied by limited analysis of evidence about the intentions behind the Chinese government’s policies.
“It is the mental state of these organs (the Chinese government) that would need to be investigated or detected and proven if genocide was ever to be detected,” Nice said. “It’s pretty obvious that purpose and intent will be crucial.”
Nice was one of nine British citizens sanctioned by China in March for spreading “lies and disinformation” about the country. The move came after Britain and other Western governments took similar measures against China for treating Uyghurs.
The lawyer said he was not intimidated but admitted that the sanctions resulted in some participants withdrawing from the tribunal. The organizers also said they were exposed to cyber targeting. They had to increase the security of the event after around 500 free tickets for the hearings of people with fake email addresses were sold out.
While her other exiles said they agreed to testify in order to seek justice, Rozi, the woman who reported the forced abortion, says she is motivated to speak up for a more personal reason. Her youngest son has been imprisoned since 2015 when he was only 13, and she hopes the tribunal’s work will help lead to his freedom one day.
“I want my son to get out as soon as possible,” she said. “I want him to be released.”