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US punishes senior Chinese officials over Uighur rights

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Washington (AFP)

The United States on Thursday took its first major action to stop "horrific" abuses against China's Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims, slapping sanctions on several senior officials.

Three officials will be refused US visas and see any US-based assets frozen including Chen Quanguo, the Chinese Communist Party chief for the Xinjiang region and architect of Beijing's hardline policies against restive minorities.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States was acting against "horrific and systematic abuses" in the western region including forced labor, mass detention and involuntary population control.

"The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang," Pompeo said in a statement.

The other two officials hit with the full sanctions were Wang Mingshan, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, and Zhu Hailun, a former senior Communist leader in the region.

The Treasury Department sanctions also make it a crime in the United States to conduct financial transactions with the three people as well as a fourth person, Huo Liujun, a former security official, who was not subjected to the separate visa restrictions.

The Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on the security bureau as an institution, pointing to its sweeping digital surveillance of Uighurs and other minorities.

Witnesses and human rights groups say that China has rounded up more than one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang in a vast brainwashing campaign aimed at forcibly homogenizing minorities into the country's Han majority.

Pompeo in a conference call with reporters Thursday called the situation "the stain of the century" and has previously drawn parallels with the Holocaust.

China counters that it is providing education and vocational training in a bid to reduce the allure of Islamic radicalism, a threat it says it shares with the United States.

The action comes amid soaring tension between the United States and China on a range of issues from trade to defense to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pompeo in recent weeks has also announced visa restrictions on Chinese officials over the treatment of Tibet and Beijing's clampdown in Hong Kong -- but, in contrast, did not publicly name anyone affected.

Activists say that visa restrictions can be effective by impacting officials' children, who will lose the prestige of heading across the Pacific for study or pleasure.

- 'At last, real consequences' -

The Uighur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group, hailed the sanctions and urged other countries to follow suit.

"At last, real consequences have begun. This comes at the 11th hour for Uighurs," said the group's executive director, Omer Kanat.

Congress has led the push for a tougher response and in May passed an act that authorized sanctions, listing Chen by name, although Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took Thursday's actions under separate authorities.

In a fresh effort, 78 members of Congress across party lines released a letter that urged President Donald Trump's administration to consider formally designating China's actions as genocide.

They wrote the letter after a German researcher, Adrian Zenz, wrote that China has been forcibly sterilizing Uighur and other ethnic minority women.

"Evidence of violence against Uighur women and coercive efforts to halt the growth of the Uighur population in (Xinjiang) require strong US leadership and international action," said the letter, whose signatories included Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney and the top Democrats on the foreign policy committees of the two chambers.

Despite wide concern in Washington over treatment of the Uighurs, former national security advisor John Bolton in an explosive new book said he was shocked at Trump's attitude on the issue.

Bolton wrote that Chinese President Xi Jinping explained the detention camps to Trump in a meeting and that the US leader replied that they were "exactly the right thing to do."

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