(New York) – The bombings in Xinjiang were a horrific act for which Chinese authorities need to respond by respecting basic human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 22, 2014, bomb blasts in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, killed more than 30 people and wounded more than 90, according to Chinese state media reports. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Chinese authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the attack without resorting to unnecessary or excessive force and by respecting due process rights. Suspects taken into custody should have immediate access to legal counsel, be promptly brought before a judge, and fairly charged or released. After previous violence in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has provided little information and failed to reveal the whereabouts or well-being of those detained on terrorism or separatism charges in violation of international law.
“The Urumqi bombings are utterly reprehensible,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “China’s duty to maintain public order includes respecting the rights of both suspects and the general population.”
Central government-driven economic development of Xinjiang and a massive influx of ethnic Han Chinese migrants there, alongside state hostility towards the distinctive cultural, linguistic, and religious identity of the Uighurs – Xinjiang’s predominant Muslim minority – have contributed to deep resentment in the region. Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have increasingly treated peaceful criticism of the government or expressions of distinct Uighur identity as evidence of “separatism, splittism, and terrorism,” crimes that under Chinese law can carry the death penalty. Previous violence by Uighurs has been small-scale and showed no evidence of being carried out by an organized movement.
The May 22 bombing appears to be the most violent event in Xinjiang since the July 2009 unrest, in which more than 130 Han and Uighurs died in violence following protests. Since then, tensions in Xinjiang have significantly escalated. Security forces have frequently manipulated the threat of terrorism to justify systemic human rights violations and curbs on religious and cultural expression. In March, Chinese authorities announced a plan to send 200,000 officials to the village level across Xinjiang, ostensibly to improve the provision of social services, yet eliciting similar concerns about surveillance that arose when a similar effort was undertaken recently in Tibet.
On May 20, according to international media, police opened fire in Aksu prefecture on a crowd that had gathered to protest restrictions on religious attire. In 2013, more than 130 Han and Uighur died in violent incidents in Bachu and Turfan prefectures, among other locations. Chinese authorities have blamed March and April 2014 attacks on civilians at train stations in Kunming and Urumqi on Uighurs. None of these incidents have been confirmed by independent observers.
In the years since the 2009 protests, Human Rights Watch has documented systemic, uncorrected abuses by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang and against Uighurs. These include dozens of enforced disappearances of Uighur men and boys, as well as hundreds of arbitrary detentions and summary trials lacking the most basic protections of a right to a fair trial. Hundreds of Uighurs, who now face significant hurdles obtaining passports, have fled China seeking refugee status; many have been forcibly returned from Cambodia, Malaysia, and Central Asian countries.
Uighur academics such as Abduweli Ayup, who along with two colleagues was detained in 2013 while trying to raise money for Uighur-language schools, and the charges against whom remain unknown, appear to be targets for repression by state authorities. Prominent Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, who had publicly criticized the Chinese government for its repressive policies in Xinjiang, was arrested in February 2014 and detained under “separatism” charges. He is being held incommunicado while being charged with one of the most serious crimes under Chinese law, which considerably heightens his risk of being tortured or otherwise ill-treated.
In recent years Chinese authorities have also stepped up restrictions in Xinjiang ahead of major religious or political events. Authorities should avoid exacerbating local tensions with such restrictions in the weeks ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in late June, and the fifth anniversary of the Urumqi unrest in early July.
China, which recently reiterated its commitment to cooperation with United Nations human rights mechanisms, and to upholding the rights of ethnic minorities, should allow an independent inquiry into recent events. Such an investigation could be undertaken by UN special rapporteurs on minority issues, on freedom of opinion and expression, on freedom of religion and belief, and on human rights while countering terrorism, as well as the UN Working Group on arbitrary detention. Several rapporteurs have outstanding requests to visit China.
“This terrible attack provides a moment for the Chinese authorities to rethink their long-term approach to Xinjiang, otherwise the situation is unlikely to improve,” Richardson said.