Rights group accuses China of 'systematic campaign of human rights violations' against Muslims

A demonstrator wearing a mask painted with the colors of the flag of East Turkestan and the Chinese flag attends a protest in Istanbul, Turkey in July 2018. Beijing has been accused of widespread human rights violations against Turkic Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang.

(CNN)The Chinese government is conducting a mass, systematic campaign of human rights violations against Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang, a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report claims.

HRW's report comes after a United Nations committee last month raised alarm at the "numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism."
Responding to the latest allegations, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Geng Shuang accused Human Rights Watch of being "biased on China" and refused to comment on the specific allegations contained in the report.
    In a statement, HRW China director Sophie Richardson said the Chinese government was "committing human rights abuses in Xinjiang on a scale unseen in the country in decades."

      Enforced loyalty

      HRW researchers interviewed 58 former Xinjiang residents, including five people who claimed to have been detained in camps and 38 relatives of alleged detainees. According to their testimony, which supports the information provided to the UN and independent reporting on the region by international media, since 2014 the authorities in Xinjiang have stepped up mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.
      "The detainees in political education camps are held without any due process rights -- neither charged nor put on trial -- and have no access to lawyers and family," HRW said.
        "They are held for having links with foreign countries, particularly those on an official list of '26 sensitive countries,' and for using foreign communication tools such as WhatsApp, as well as for peacefully expressing their identity and religion, none of which constitute crimes."
        The report compared the situation to that seen during the Cultural Revolution -- the decade long civil conflict that rocked China during the 60s and 70s and saw widespread abuse of religious and ethnic minorities.
        Former detainees claimed they were beaten and abused in detention, and forced to sign patriotic songs entitled, "Without The CCP, There's No New China," and "Socialism is Good."
        "Before meals, we had to stand and say; 'We feel grateful for the Party, grateful for the Motherland, (and) grateful for President Xi;' that 'We wish President Xi good health, that the Motherland is prosperous, and that the ethnic groups are in harmony,' before we were allowed to sit down and eat," a former detainee called Nur told HRW.
        During political classes, detainees "had to learn about the rules and regulations, like 'We are resolutely against 'the three evil forces,'' the 32 rules that you must memorize like, 'we are against religious extremism' that we have to 'support the Party.' "

        Official paranoia

        Like Tibet, Xinjiang -- which has a history of independent rule and largely non-Han Chinese population -- has always been viewed with some suspicion by the authorities in Beijing, fearful it could become a hotbed of separatist, or in its case, Islamist organizing.
        During the Sino-Soviet split, the concern was that Moscow would use the province to sow chaos within China, following the fall of the Berlin Wall suspicion shifted to US activity in the region, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since 9/11 and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the corresponding boom in violent Islamist extremism, Beijing has massively ramped up security operations in Xinjiang, fearful that terrorists could take hold on its western border.
        While there have been attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China linked to Islamist terrorist groups, most analysts agree that the threat is limited. However, there are reliable reports of Uyghur fighters operating in Syria alongside the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad.
        Photo taken in February 2018 shows police officers patrolling in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.