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Uighur leader urges pressure on China as he receives US award

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Washington (AFP)

An exiled Uighur leader called for more concerted international pressure on China to end its mass detention of the ethnic group as he received a US award.

The National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the US Congress to promote democracy worldwide, gave its annual award to the World Uyghur Congress as well as the Tibet Action Institute and ChinaAid, a Christian human rights group headed by pastor Bob Fu.

The Democracy Award -- whose statuette resembles the Goddess of Democracy erected by students in Tiananmen Square -- was presented Tuesday night on the 30th anniversary of China's crushing of the student protests, which left hundreds if not more dead.

Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, which says it represents the interests of Uighurs both under Chinese rule and overseas, said the award offered a morale boost to the group which Beijing has branded a terrorist organization.

"Maybe this award will bring more support for the Uighur cause from the international community," Isa told AFP at the ceremony.

"Some countries like the US and European countries are speaking out. But many Muslim countries continue not only their silence but supporting the Chinese repression toward the Uighurs. It's a real disappointment and shame because we are Muslims facing religious persecution," he said.

China has rounded up more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic peoples in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, according to estimates cited by a UN panel.

The United States has drawn parallels to Nazi Germany and denounced the "concentration camps." But Isa said the United States should go further and impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the policy, a step supported by a number of US lawmakers.

"Just speaking out on this issue isn't good enough. We ask Western governments to take concrete action and sanction high-level officials," he said.

"Otherwise the Chinese will not stop and will continually expand these camps," he said.

China has denounced the Western criticism, calling it inaccurate and interference in its affairs, and was angered when the United States invited Isa to address a UN forum.

China says it is providing vocational training to prevent the spread of Islamic extremism.

But Isa said China is suppressing freedom of religion. He cited accounts that China has demanded that Uighurs not pray or fast during the holy month of Ramadan and has forced them to eat pork and drink alcohol, both forbidden by Islam.

"If you refuse, they say you're radicalized," he said.

Representative Jim McGovern, presenting the award to Isa, described the camps as an "attempt to stamp out Uighur identity" and said Uighurs who are not detained "live in an open-air prison."

"It is long past time for the world to send a clear message that the Chinese government cannot perpetrate these abuses with impunity," the Democratic lawmaker said.

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