The tribunal, which has no legal authority, is gathering harrowing testimony of torture, forced sterilization and other brutal acts against Uyghur Muslims in China.
(CN) — Four days of hearings kicked off on Friday in London by a so-called people’s tribunal into allegations that China is committing crimes against humanity and genocide against ethnic Uyghur Muslims and other Turkic minority groups.
The tribunal has no legal authority but it is part of a long post-World War II tradition to bring to light atrocities and government criminality which may never get heard in a court of law. The tribunals mimic a jury trial by hearing witnesses and assessing evidence.
Many legal scholars point to a 1966 Vietnam War tribunal set up by British philosopher Bertrand Russell and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as the first experiment with a people’s tribunal. Their panel included prominent writers and civil rights activists who found the United States guilty of war crimes.
On Friday, a nine-member panel, made up largely of scholars affiliated with British universities, opened its first day of witness testimony. More hearings are scheduled for September and the tribunal is expected to issue a verdict in December. The hearings can be watched via a live stream from London and the tribunal’s website provides witness statements.
The tribunal is hearing harrowing testimony from Uyghurs who are providing first-hand accounts of what is reportedly going on inside large “re-education camps” in China’s Xinjiang region, where thousands of Uyghur men and women are allegedly subjected to torture and inhumane conditions. Besides running what critics call concentration camps, Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, systematically sterilizing people and separating children from incarcerated parents.
The tribunal’s work comes amid a growing chorus of outrage and mounting evidence that China is committing atrocities against Uyghurs, a large ethnic Turkic group and followers of Islam who are mostly concentrated in far western China. The crackdown on Uyghurs is part of China’s decades-long effort to stamp out what it says are terrorist activities by Uyghur groups seeking to carve out an independent state from China.
This year, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada declared that Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim and Turkic minorities amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity.
An estimated 1 million people or more – most of them Uyghurs – have been confined in re-education camps in Xinjiang in recent years, according to researchers.
China fiercely denies the accusations and characterized the camps, which they say are now closed, as vocational training centers to teach Chinese language, job skills and the law to support economic development and combat extremism.
Chinese officials are calling the London tribunal a farce and accuse the witnesses appearing before it of lying.
This is not the first time, of course, that Uyghurs have described what is happening in China and there have been multiple news reports based on witness accounts, especially in the past two years. Still, the tribunal is providing a fuller picture and establishing a record of what has happened while at the same time giving the plight of Uyghurs a human face inside a quasi-legal environment.
The tribunal’s work was prompted by a request from the World Uyghur Congress, a political body made up of exiled Uyghurs and declared a terrorist group by China.
The first witness Friday was Qelbinur Sidik, a Uyghur woman in her 50s who described being sent to internment camps in 2017 to instruct Uyghur men and women.
She described shackled male inmates at the first camp she taught in as being “treated less than dogs.”
“Men were locked in the cell where there was no bedding, they slept on the concrete floor,” she said, speaking through a translator. “They were given one steamed bun and watery soup” a day.
She said between 40 and 50 men were crammed together in cells with a single toilet and that their camp uniforms, grey pajama-like suits, were filthy and that the men suffered from lice because they were not allowed to wash themselves. She estimated that up to 8,000 men were held in the camp.
Inmates, she said, had a number emblazoned on the front of their uniforms.
“Were they called by their names or their numbers?” a panelist asked.
“It was all by numbers,” Sidik replied. “I didn’t know the names of any of them.”
Although the Chinese authorities told her she was going to teach “illiterate men,” she said many of the men were very well educated and some had even studied outside China.
In a basement section of the camp, she said she heard the screams of men she believed were being tortured. She said inmates often simply disappeared and did not return.
She also found atrocious conditions at a camp for women where she taught, she said. She estimated that up to 10,000 women were kept in this camp with the vast majority of them being younger than 40.
She said female inmates were forced to take sterilization pills every Monday and that they were routinely tortured and raped.
“During my time there, I heard from a close acquaintance that every time these women were taken for an interrogation, they were not only tortured, but also raped, sometimes gang raped,” Sidik said, choking up and crying. “As though that were not enough, the police also used electric prods and inserted them into their vaginas to make them suffer.”
Crying, she said: “The things I witnessed, I cannot forget.”
In her testimony, she also described being forced to undergo sterilization.
The tribunal also heard from Omir Bekali, a 45-year-old man of Uygur and Kazakh parents. He described being arrested in 2017 and accused of extremist activities. He denied the accusations.
He described being shackled in chains, getting tortured and hearing of men who were taken to the “water prison” where they were hung with their arms above their heads in water up to their necks. He said many men, especially those who were the most fit and healthy, were taken away and never appeared again.
At one point during his testimony, he demonstrated how he was shackled with chains.
“The chain that I brought here is the [kind of] chain that I was chained with for seven months and 10 days,” he said. “Our people became like cattle.”
The tribunal is chaired by Geoffrey Nice, a prominent human rights lawyer who led the prosecution of ex-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and worked with the International Criminal Court.
Nice said China likely will never be forced to appear before a criminal court over the genocide allegations, making the tribunal’s work that much more important.
“It is very unlikely, effectively impossible, for the allegations leveled against the PRC [the People’s Republic of China] to be tested before any formal court such as the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice or to be dealt with by any other national or international public evidence-based process,” he said during remarks at the opening of the hearings.
He said the tribunal has no authority to punish China, but that it will serve as a repository of evidence and help businesses, individuals and governments assess their relationships with China.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.