Trump signs bill aiming to sanction China officials for crackdown on Uighur Muslims

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US President Donald Trump signed legislation Wednesday that seeks to punish China for a crackdown on ethnic minorities.

The Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 passed with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Trump signed it with no ceremony, issuing a statement in which he said a sanctions provision intruded on executive authority and he would regard it as non-binding.

Still, Uighur activists see the approval as an important step. It is the first time any government has sought to punish China for a campaign of mass surveillance and detention of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western Xinjiang region.

“Globally this should be a model for other counties who have been very lukewarm in their response to the ongoing atrocities in the Uighur region,” said Nury Turkel, a Uighur activist and member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The bill, which includes sanctions on Chinese officials directly involved in the crackdown, was expected to further inflame already tense relations with China amid the Trump administration’s criticism of Beijing’s response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The signing came as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was meeting in Hawaii with a senior Chinese diplomat.

Trump issued a statement upon signing the legislation Wednesday that the new law would hold “perpetrators of human rights violations” accountable.

Members of Congress intended the legislation to increase pressure on China over the crackdown in Xinjiang, where authorities have detained more than a million people — from ethnic groups that include Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz — in a vast network of detention centers. Many have been subjected to torture and forced labor and deprived of adequate food and medical treatment.

The law would impose sanctions on specific Chinese officials, such as the Communist Party official who oversees government policy in Xinjiang. Trump said in his signing statement that a provision dictating when sanctions could be terminated interfered with executive authority and would be considered non-binding.

An ethnic Uighur demonstrator wears a mask as she attends a protest against China in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul. (File photo: Reuters)
An ethnic Uighur demonstrator wears a mask as she attends a protest against China in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul. (File photo: Reuters)

Even with the signing statement, Turkel said the measure is “still an effective legal mechanism to address human rights abuses” and he thanked members of Congress for their support.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the act requires the secretary of state to determine whether individuals responsible for “appalling human rights violations” meet the criteria for sanctions. “The United States cannot remain silent in the face of these atrocious and horrifying abuses,” the Oregon Democrat said. “As millions of Americans fight for racial justice here at home, we must also stand strong as a champion of human rights abroad.”

The legislation also requires the US government to report to Congress on the human rights violations in Xinjiang as well as China’s acquisition of technology used for mass detention and surveillance. It also requires American authorities to look into the pervasive reports of harassment and threats of Uighurs and other Chinese nationals in the United States.

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China has publicly brushed away criticism of its crackdown in Xinjiang, which it launched in 2014 as the “Strike Hard Against Violent Extremism” campaign in the vast resource-rich territory in the far northwest of the country.

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