US voices concern on China’s Muslim crackdown, sanctions weighed

In this July 10, 2009, file photo, Chinese paramilitary police practice during a break from patrol in Urumqi, western China's Xinjiang province. (AP)
Updated 12 September 2018
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US voices concern on China’s Muslim crackdown, sanctions weighed

  • Beijing has said Xinjiang faces a serious threat from militants and separatists
  • A UN rights panel said it had received credible reports that up to one million ethnic Uighurs may be held in extra-legal detention in Xinjiang

WASHINGTON: The US State Department on Tuesday expressed deep concern over China’s “worsening crackdown” on minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region, as the Trump administration considered sanctions against Chinese senior officials and companies linked to allegations of human rights abuses.
Discussions have gained momentum within the US government over possible economic penalties in response to reports of mass detentions of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims, which has prompted a growing international outcry, US congressional sources said.
Any sanctions decision would be a rare move on human rights grounds by the Trump administration against China, with which it is engaged in a trade war while also seeking Beijing’s help to resolve a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
A US official said the idea of sanctions was still in the discussion stage, and one of the congressional sources said a decision did not appear to be imminent.
“We’re deeply troubled by the worsening crackdown, not just on Uighurs (but also) Kazakhs, other Muslims in that region of China,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a news briefing, renewing concerns expressed in recent months by top administration officials.
Nauert acknowledged that the State Department had received a letter from a bipartisan group of US lawmakers at the end of August asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to impose sanctions on a number of Chinese officials accused of overseeing the policies. Those included Chen Quanguo, Communist Party chief in Xinjiang and also a member of the Party’s politburo.
Also under consideration are sanctions the lawmakers sought against several Chinese companies involved in building detention camps and creating surveillance systems used to track and monitor Uighurs, according to one of the congressional sources.
Nauert declined to discuss details of any US government action. “We’re not going to preview any sanctions that may or may not happen,” Nauert said.
The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project tweeted a photo of activist Dolkun Isa, president of World Uyghur Congress, at the White House on Monday along with the comment, “A meeting with White House officials today provided much-needed encouragement for Uyghur human-rights advocates.”
Isa, speaking to Reuters by telephone from Brussels, where he said he was due to meet EU officials on Wednesday, declined to say which White House officials he had met in Washington.
Isa said he had the impression from the Americans that “they are seriously considering” imposing sanctions on senior Chinese officials, including Chen, the Party chief in the far western region.
China earlier on Tuesday called for United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to respect its sovereignty after she urged Beijing to allow monitors into the region and expressed concern about the situation there.
Beijing has said Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tension between the mostly Muslim Uighur minority who call the region home and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.
Last month, a UN rights panel said it had received credible reports that up to one million ethnic Uighurs may be held in extra-legal detention in Xinjiang, and called for them to be freed.
“There are credible reports out there that many, many thousands have been detained in detention centers since April 2017, and the numbers are fairly significant from what we can tell so far,” Nauert said.
US sanctions could be imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, a federal law that allows the US government to target human rights violators around the world with freezes on any US assets, US travel bans, and prohibitions on Americans doing business with them.


Migrant caravan blockade: US Army unfurls fencing along border with Mexico

Updated 19 November 2018
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Migrant caravan blockade: US Army unfurls fencing along border with Mexico

  • Some Laredo residents had voiced disquiet about the fencing and the presence of US troops
  • ‘It reminds me of Hitler and the concentration camps’

LAREDO, United State: They started work in the cool of the morning and moved quickly, uncoiling reel after reel of vicious-looking fencing and tying it with barbed wire to green poles hammered into the ground.
Over the course of three days, a gleaming, shoulders-high barrier of concertina-wire emerged like a silver snake along a lush riverbank, stretching as far as the eye could see.
This was the work of 100 or so American troops from the 19th Engineer Battalion, based in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Rather than finding themselves in a far-off warzone, the soldiers are in Laredo, a busy border town overlooking a stretch of the Rio Grande river in southwest Texas, carrying out controversial orders from President Donald Trump.
He has sent about 5,800 troops to the border to forestall the arrival of large groups of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico and toward the US, in a move critics decry as a costly political stunt to galvanize supporters ahead of midterm elections earlier this month.
Before the election Trump called the matter a “national emergency” and warned that so-called migrant caravans were an “invasion” with “some very bad thugs and gang members.”
So far at least, the most visible aspect of Trump’s deployment is the fence, a visible deterrent and physical obstacle to migrants, designed to corral would-be asylum seekers toward organized points of entry into the US.
Over the weekend, Lt. Alan Koepnick’s platoon could be seen stringing concertina wire, which is built to snag clothing, along one edge of a quiet riverside park near downtown Laredo.
As families walked dogs, grilled sausages and relaxed, the soldiers mounted the wire, occasionally ripping their camouflaged uniforms on its metal barbs.
Koepnick said some Laredo residents had voiced disquiet about the fencing and the presence of US troops.
“But there’s also been a lot of support, people coming in, vets shaking our hands, bringing us cakes, water, things like that,” Koepnick said.
About 100 yards (meters) behind him, a group of people on the Mexican side of the river could be seen standing on the bank.
“You’ll see people across the river cursing at us in Spanish, throwing bottles at us. But on this side it’s more positive,” Koepnick said.
He and his soldiers were unarmed, but a group of armed military police officers stood by to provide “force protection.”
Under US law, the military is not allowed to conduct domestic law enforcement in most cases, so soldiers here will not have any direct interactions with migrants.
Trump created a media whirlwind by sounding the alarm about the migrant caravans before the November 6 elections. He has mainly stopped raising it since, though last week he praised the military’s work.
“They built great fencing, they built a very powerful fence,” said Trump, who wants to build a hardened wall along the entire 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border.
Laura Pole, a British tourist visiting Laredo for the third time, was less enthusiastic.
“It reminds me of Hitler and the concentration camps,” she said, but added: “I really don’t know what’s the best thing to do.”
The border mission has put the supposedly non-political military in an uncomfortable spotlight.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has hit back at critics who say the Pentagon should not be doing Trump’s political bidding, saying “we don’t do stunts.”
He visited troops on the border last week and reiterated that their job in the short term was to assist under-resourced Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and put up physical obstacles.
But “longer term, it’s somewhat to be determined,” he said.
After some rank-and-file troops grumbled about the purpose of the mission to US media last week, they are now under strict instructions not to voice personal opinions to the press.
Several soldiers AFP spoke to said their time on the border provided valuable real-world training, albeit without the risks of combat.
“We have a very large group of brand-new soldiers and it’s really good for them,” Corporal Samuel Fletcher said, citing a chance for the green troops “to do real work and put their skills to use.”
In Laredo, large groups of migrants from the caravans in Mexico had not arrived.
Instead they were mainly headed to Tijuana, about 1,300 miles away in San Diego, where authorities say more than 3,000 have already arrived.
Still, a CBP agent, who was not authorized to give his name, said he was glad of the military assistance as each day, “hundreds” of migrants attempt to cross the approximately 30-mile stretch of border he patrols.
The military deployment is set to wrap up December 15 and it is not clear what will become of the wire fencing.
Already, the winds whistling down the Rio Grande valley are strewing trash, clothing and plastic bags along the jagged wire.
“Nobody seems to know when it’s coming down. It’s not really our decision,” said Koepnick.
“If we are told to take it down, we will take it down with a smile on our faces, like good soldiers.”