US lawmakers turn focus to plight of Uyghurs in China

Qelbinur Sidik, left, shown in this picture during the 2021 hearings of independent Uyghur Tribunal, was among the witnesses in the special US House committee hearing on March 23, 2023, in Washington. (AP File)
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Updated 24 March 2023
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US lawmakers turn focus to plight of Uyghurs in China

  • Female Uyghur detainees were held by the thousands, heads shaved, tortured and gang-raped, witness testifies
  • China is accused of sweeping over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups into detention camps

WASHINGTON: Two women who experienced life in Chinese “reeducation” camps for Uyghurs told lawmakers Thursday of lives under imprisonment and surveillance, rape and torture as a special House committee focused on countering China shined a light on human rights abuses in the country.
Qelbinur Sidik, a member of China’s ethnic Uzbek minority who was forced to teach Chinese in separate detention facilities for Uyghur men and women, told lawmakers of male Uyghur detainees held chained and shackled in cells so tiny they had to crawl out when authorities summoned them. “They were called by numbers for interrogations. And then you would hear horrible screaming sounds from torture,” she said.
Innocent female Uyghur detainees were held by the thousands, heads shaved, in gray uniforms, Sidik said. Guards tortured the women by electric shocks and by gang rape, sometimes combining both. “And I have witnessed an 18- to 20-year-old girl” slowly bleed to death from the treatment, Sidik said.
Reeducation camps intended to drain the Uyghur inmates of their language, religious beliefs and customs forced men and women into “11 hours of brainwashing lessons on a daily basis,” testified Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur who spent more than two years in two reeducation camps and police stations.
“Before eating, we have to praise them, say that we are grateful ... for China’s Communist Party and we are grateful for (President) Xi Jinping,” Haitiwaji said. “And after, to finish eating, we have to praise them again.”
Accused of “disorder” and detained with 30 to 40 people in a cell meant for nine, the Uyghur woman said, she and other female detainees were chained to their beds for 20 days at one point.
Detention left her gaunt. Freed and sent to France thanks to a pressure campaign by her family there in 2019, she was given more food by Chinese authorities before her release, so her appearance would not speak of her mistreatment.
In parting, Chinese officials warned Haitiwaji that “whatever I had witnessed in the concentration camp I should not talk about it,” she said. “If I do, they will retaliate against my family back home.”
The US and many other governments, the United Nations, and human rights groups accuse China of sweeping a million or more people from its Uyghur community and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups into detention camps, where many have said they were tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to abandon their language and religion. China denies the accusations, which are based on evidence including interviews with survivors and photos and satellite images from Uyghur’s home province of Xinjiang, a major hub for factories and farms in far western China.
“For a long time, some US politicians have repeatedly used Xinjiang-related issues to stir up rumors and engage in political manipulation under the pretext of human rights, in an attempt to tarnish China’s image and curb China’s development,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
The Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang were about “countering violence, terrorism, radicalization and separatism,” the embassy spokesman insisted.
The accusations also include draconian birth control policies, all-encompassing restrictions on people’s movement and forced labor.
The early focus on the plight of Uyghurs by the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party is designed to show the Chinese government’s true nature, said Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the committee’s Republican chairman.
“They are the first-hand witnesses to the systemic, unimaginable brutality, witnesses to the attempted elimination of a people, a culture, a civilization,” Gallagher said Thursday.
In advance of the hearing, human rights experts talked about the importance of focusing on treatment of the Uyghurs, including Elisha Wiesel. He is the son of the late Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and the author of the memoir “Night” about his experiences during the Holocaust and living in concentration camps.
“Looking at the world stage right now, it’s clear to me that there is no crime on such a massive scale taking place as what’s taking place with the Uyghur people,” Wiesel said.
Wiesel said that both the Trump and Biden administrations had been active on the topic, and pointed to passage of a bill on forced labor and sanctions against companies shown to be using forced labor of Uyghurs. “This is exactly the sort of pressure that needs to be continued,” he said.
Laura Murphy, a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom, specializes in American businesses that draw on forced labor. She said it was important for the United States to keep identifying and penalizing companies using Uyghur forced labor.
“Most companies ... they not only don’t know, they intentionally don’t know,” Murphy said.
Outside of the sectors of cotton and components of solar panels, two industries in China that the US and others say relies heavily on forced labor by detained Uyghurs, companies that draw on supplies from China “would prefer not to look into it,” she said.
“So long as businesses continue to do business with the Uyghur region ... they are financing a genocide,” Murphy said.
The US should step up legislation rewarding companies that have shown they make no use of Uyghur forced labor, in terms of access to US markets, and increase information-sharing on companies that haven’t, she said.
The hearing also comes following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Russia to show support for President Vladimir Putin, underscoring just how badly US relations with China have deteriorated.
“What we’re seeing here is increasingly a de facto alliance against America and our allies to try and undercut our interests,” Gallagher said.
The formation of the special China committee this year was a top priority of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., but close to 150 Democrats also voted for the committee’s creation, and its work has been unusually bipartisan so far.
“This hearing is important because what happens to the Uyghur community in China impacts Americans at home,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. “It’s in the goods produced with slave labor, it’s the degradation of human rights that makes the world less safe, and it’s the ceaseless persecution of Uyghurs abroad that includes those living in America.”
Haitiwaji, the ethnic Uyghur woman testifying before the committee, said she is speaking out because she feels an obligation to speak for those still languishing in detention centers. She is calling on lawmakers to follow the example of Canada, which has adopted a policy of accepting 10,000 Uyghur refugees from around the world.
“Please rescue Uyghur and other Turkic refugees, like Canada has done,” she said in her prepared remarks. “Please stop American companies from continuing to be complicit in surveilling our people and profiting from their labor.”


Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

Updated 12 April 2024
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Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

  • Establishing ties with Israel would be ‘political suicide’ for Indonesian leadership, analyst says
  • Israeli media reports claim Jakarta has begun OECD-brokered talks with Tel Aviv

JAKARTA: Jakarta has denied plans to establish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, following viral Israeli media reports claiming it was part of a deal to smooth Indonesia’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Indonesia is the first Southeast Asian nation to apply for the membership of the 38-nation forum. Accession talks began in February, but according to local Israeli media were objected to by Tel Aviv over the lack of diplomatic ties with Jakarta.

Countries need unanimous approval from all OECD members, including Israel, to join the bloc.

Citing anonymous sources, the Israeli media reports claimed that Indonesia had started OECD-brokered talks with Israel, which in exchange for recognition would agree to the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation joining the group.

However, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the claims.

“There are no plans to open diplomatic ties with Israel, especially in the wake of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. Indonesia’s stance has not changed, and we remain consistent in supporting Palestine’s independence within the framework of the two-state solution,” Lalu Muhamad Iqbal, the ministry’s spokesperson, told reporters late on Thursday.

“Indonesia will always be consistent and at the forefront of defending the rights of the Palestinian people.”

One of the staunchest supporters of Palestine, the Indonesian government has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of Israel’s deadly invasion of Gaza in October, Jakarta has also been vocal on the international stage, demanding an end to military support and weapons sales to Tel Aviv.

In January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on the UN Security Council to make no exceptions in upholding international law, and to bring Israel to account over mass killing and atrocities.

Israeli ground and air attacks have in the past six months have killed at least 33,400 Palestinian citizens, almost half of them children. Over 70,000 have been injured, mutilated or disabled by the strikes, while thousands remain missing under the rubble.

The Israeli military has also levelled large parts of Gaza, destroyed most of its civilian and medical infrastructure, and blocked water, food and aid supplies to the territory, bringing its more than 2 million inhabitants to the brink of famine.

Since the beginning of the onslaught, mass public protests in support of Palestine have taken place frequently in Indonesia, where people see Palestinian independence as mandated by their own constitution, which calls for the abolition of colonialism.

“If the government takes the opposite step by recognizing the state of Israel and tolerating colonialism and oppression, that will cause political suicide, given that such a thing would lead to political delegitimization and loss of public trust,” Airlangga Pribadi Kusman, a political science lecturer at Airlangga University in Surabaya, told Arab News.

“The current and future Indonesian government should continue its policy of supporting Palestinian independence as has been the commitment of previous governments.”


Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

Updated 12 April 2024
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Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

  • Establishing ties with Israel would mean ‘political suicide’ for Indonesian leadership
  • Israeli media reports claim Indonesia has started OECD-brokered talks with Tel Aviv

JAKARTA: Jakarta has denied plans to establish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, following viral Israeli media reports claiming it was part of a deal to smooth Indonesia’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation.

Indonesia is the first Southeast Asian nation to apply for the membership of the 38-nation forum. Accession talks began in February but, according to local Israeli media, were objected to by Tel Aviv over the lack of diplomatic ties with Jakarta.

Countries need unanimous approval from all OECD members, including Israel, to join the bloc.

Citing anonymous sources, the Israeli media reports claimed that Indonesia had started OECD-brokered talks with Israel, which in exchange for recognition would give its nod for the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation to join the group.

The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs debunked the claims.

“There are no plans to open diplomatic ties with Israel, especially in the wake of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. Indonesia’s stance has not changed, and we remain consistent in supporting Palestine’s independence within the framework of the two-state solution,” Lalu Muhamad Iqbal, the ministry’s spokesperson, told reporters Thursday evening.

“Indonesia will always be consistent and at the forefront of defending the rights of the Palestinian people.”

One of the staunchest supporters of Palestine, the Indonesian government has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of Israel’s deadly invasion of Gaza in October, it has also been vocal on the international stage, demanding a stop to military support and weapons sales to Tel Aviv.

In January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on the UN Security Council to make no exceptions in upholding international law and to bring Israel to accountability over mass killing and atrocities.

Israeli ground and air attacks have in the past six months killed at least 33,400 Palestinian citizens — nearly half of them children. Over 70,000 have been injured, mutilated and disabled by the strikes, while thousands of others remain missing under the rubble.

The Israeli military has also levelled large parts of Gaza, destroyed most of its civilian and medical infrastructure, and blocked water, food and aid supplies to the territory, bringing its more than 2 million inhabitants to the verge of famine.

Since the beginning of the onslaught, mass public protests in support of Palestine have been regular in Indonesia, where the people see Palestinian independence as mandated by their own constitution, which calls for the abolition of colonialism.

“If the government takes the opposite step by recognizing the state of Israel and tolerating colonialism and oppression, that will cause political suicide, given that such a thing would lead to political delegitimization and loss of public trust,” Dr. Airlangga Pribadi Kusman, political science lecturer at Airlangga University in Surabaya, told Arab News.

“The current and future Indonesian government should continue its policy of supporting Palestinian independence as has been the commitment of previous governments.”

 


EU, Britain and Spain to hold more talks on post-Brexit status of Gibraltar

Updated 12 April 2024
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EU, Britain and Spain to hold more talks on post-Brexit status of Gibraltar

  • The two ministers will hold talks with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in Brussels
  • All sides are eager to clinch a deal before European elections in June

MADRID: British and Spanish foreign ministers will meet Friday with a top European Commission official for another round of negotiations over the status of the disputed territory of Gibraltar following Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The two ministers will hold talks with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in Brussels. Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo will also attend.
Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said that while the meeting with his British counterpart David Cameron “may not be the final day,” he was optimistic of an agreement “as soon as possible.”
“These are complex, technical issues, and then we will have to draft a whole set of documents, but we are already close to reaching an agreement on the general political lines,” Albares told Spain’s Onda Cero radio on Thursday.
All sides are eager to clinch a deal before European elections in June.
Britain left the European Union in 2020 with the relationship between Gibraltar and the bloc unresolved. Talks on a deal to ensure people and goods can keep flowing over the Gibraltar-Spain border have made halting progress during 18 rounds of negotiations, but UK officials have recently expressed optimism about reaching a deal.
In Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum, 96 percent of voters in Gibraltar supported remaining in the EU. The tiny territory on Spain’s southern tip depends greatly on access to the EU market for its 34,000 inhabitants.
Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in 1713, but Spain has maintained its sovereignty claim ever since. Relations concerning the Rock, as it is popularly referred to in English, have had their ups and down over the centuries.
British Foreign Office Minister David Rutley said last month that “while negotiations have been technically and politically complex, significant progress has been made.”
A major sticking point has been who controls Gibraltar’s airport, which under the proposed free-movement deal would be an external border of the EU. The UK and Gibraltar have resisted Spain’s insistence that Spanish border officials be based at the airport, which is also home to a Royal Air Force base.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement Thursday that while it is “not expecting this meeting to reach a final agreement, getting senior political figures from the UK, European Commission, Spain and Gibraltar in one room is significant.”


Teaching refugee women from Pakistan, other states to drive goes farther than destination

Updated 12 April 2024
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Teaching refugee women from Pakistan, other states to drive goes farther than destination

  • Students sign up for driving program through Ethaar, an Atlanta-area nonprofit organization that aids refugee families resettlement
  • US government gives refugee families up to 12 months of financial, medical assistance, so there is limited time to become autonomous

STONE MOUNTAIN: In a large, empty parking lot outside Atlanta, one car slowly careened around parking spaces. From the passenger seat, driving instructor Nancy Gobran peered over large sunglasses at her student, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee woman who was driving for one of the first times in her life.

“Turn the wheel and then accelerate,” Gobran, the owner of Safety Driving School, said softly in Arabic. Gripping the wheel tightly, the student cautiously rounded the corners of the parking lot for nearly an hour.

Gobran has been working for nearly five years with a program called Women Behind the Wheel, which offers 14 hours of free drivers’ education to mostly refugee and immigrant women. Many of the women who enroll come from countries that discourage women from driving or working outside their home.

It’s not a new concept, but Women Behind the Wheel is unique to Georgia. Similar programs exist across the country, such as Refugee Women Rising in Omaha, Nebraska, which offers driver’s education, seat belt safety and car seat installation help, and Driving Opportunity in Denver, which offers classroom and road instruction to refugee women.

“Helping a lot of refugees is not easy,” Gobran said. “At the beginning, it’s kind of awkward for some people for their first time being behind the wheel, but by the end of the program, they gained the benefit they’ve been looking for.”

Students sign up for the driving program through Ethaar, an Atlanta-area nonprofit organization that aids refugee families through their resettlement. Its name is an Arabic word meaning altruism and affection.

Ethaar co-founder Mona Megahed said she started Women Behind the Wheel to fill a glaring need many refugee families have that partially stem from cultural differences.

“We named it Women Behind the Wheel for a reason,” Megahed said. “We really wanted to empower our female clients. A lot of these women were struggling because they were fully dependent on their spouses.”

She noted some husbands held beliefs from their home countries that their wives shouldn’t drive or work.

“We quickly explained, well, you can’t really provide if you’re making minimum wage and you have six mouths to feed in addition to helping with your wife,” Megahed said. “So she also needs to kind of learn how to drive and find a job and get out there.”

The stress can be compounded for families in metro Atlanta, where many people rely on cars to get around. Most of the refugee families Ethaar works with settle in Clarkston, a suburb 15 miles (24 kilometers) northeast of Atlanta.

“Most of the time because of lack of access to transportation, it’s hard for them to get to their jobs,” said Sarah Karim, Ethaar’s executive director. “It’s hard for them to go study anywhere except for what is close by, and there aren’t that many options, unfortunately.”

Their clientele depends on the shifting global landscape and conflicts, Karim said.

“Lately, we’ve observed various nationalities among our clients, including families and individuals from Afghanistan, Burma, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Eritrea,” Karim said.

So far, there have been 230 graduates of the program, including a few men. The driving program typically has a three-to-four-month waitlist because of the demand. The US government gives refugee families up to 12 months of financial and medical assistance, so there is limited time to become autonomous.

“The point is for every refugee to reach self-sufficiency or self-reliance,” said Dorian Crosby, a Spelman College professor who is an expert in refugee migration.

“Learning how to drive and getting access to a license is critical to refugee women reaching that level of self-reliance,” Crosby said. “It’s not just to meet the government regulations of the cutoff, but they now can sustain themselves. It is also such an emotional boost.”

Instructors like Gobran are fluent in Arabic, which makes students more comfortable. She watched her client slowly gain confidence over her hourlong session. A smile crept across her face. A month later, her student passed her driving test.

“This is their new home, and they have to understand how this country works,” Gobran said. “It starts with the very little thing as driving to build a future.”


Argentina court blames ‘terrorist state’ Iran for 1990s attacks

Updated 12 April 2024
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Argentina court blames ‘terrorist state’ Iran for 1990s attacks

  • Court found that Iran ordered the bomb attacks on Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and on the AMIA Jewish center in 1994
  • The embassy blast killed 29 and the AMIA Jewish Center bombing left 85 dead and 300 injured
  • Prosecutors charged top Iranian officials with ordering the attacks. Tehran has denied any involvement

BUENOS AIRES: Over three decades after deadly attacks in Buenos Aires targeted Israel’s embassy and a Jewish center, an Argentine court placed the blame Thursday on Iran and declared it a “terrorist state,” according to local media.

The ruling, cited by press reports, said Iran had ordered the attack in 1992 on Israel’s embassy and the 1994 attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish center.
The court also implicated the Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah and called the attack against the AMIA — the deadliest in Argentina’s history — a “crime against humanity,” according to court documents cited by media reports.
“Hezbollah carried out an operation that responded to a political, ideological and revolutionary design under the mandate of a government, of a State,” Carlos Mahiques, one of the three judges who issued the decision, told Radio Con Vos, referencing Iran.
In 1992, a bomb attack on the Israeli embassy left 29 dead. Two years later, a truck loaded with explosives drove into the AMIA Jewish center and detonated, leaving 85 dead and 300 injured.
The 1994 assault has never been claimed or solved, but Argentina and Israel have long suspected Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group carried it out at Iran’s request.
Prosecutors charged top Iranian officials with ordering the attack. Tehran has denied any involvement.
Argentina has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, with some 300,000 members.
It also is home to immigrant communities from the Middle East — from Syria and Lebanon in particular.
The judges ruled Thursday that the AMIA attack was a crime against humanity, and put blame on then-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Bahramaie Rafsanjani as well as other Iranian officials and Hezbollah members.
The decision was welcomed by the president of the Delegation of Israelite Associations of Argentina (DAIA), Jorge Knoblovits.
He told Radio Mitre the ruling “is very important, because it enables the victims to go to the International Criminal Court.”
Former Argentine president Carlos Menem, who died in 2021 and was the president at the time of both attacks, was tried for covering up the AMIA bombing, but ultimately acquitted.
His former intelligence chief Hugo Anzorreguy was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail for his role in obstructing the probe.
He was among some dozen defendants who faced a slew of corruption and obstruction of justice charges in the case, including the former judge who led the investigation into the attack, Juan Jose Galeano, who in 2019 was jailed for six years for concealment and violation of evidence.