BEIJING -- The Chinese regime has dramatically increased its prosecution of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang through the formal court system, handing out long prison terms for dubious charges such as "picking quarrels" and giving gifts to overseas relatives, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported Wednesday (February 24).
These criminal convictions are in addition to the detention of an estimated one million Uighurs and other mainly Muslim minorities in "political education" camps in Xinjiang.
More than 250,000 inhabitants of the northwestern region have been formally sentenced and imprisoned since 2016, HRW reported.
"Despite the veneer of legality, many of those in Xinjiang's prisons are ordinary people who were convicted for going about their lives and practicing their religion," HRW researcher Maya Wang said in a statement.
Criminal sentences in the Xinjiang region spiked between 2017 and 2019 during a crackdown on Uighurs and other mainly Muslim minorities, said HRW.
Xinjiang courts sentenced almost 100,000 defendants in 2017, up from less than 40,000 in 2016, the organisation said, citing government data.
Police, prosecutors and courts had been placed under pressure to "deliver swift and harsh punishment" in the name of counter-terrorism, causing many to be imprisoned without committing any genuine offence, said the rights group.
Courts handed out sentences for activities including "telling others 'what is haram and halal'" and bringing gifts to relatives in Turkey, HRW said, noting that prison terms have grown longer.
Prior to 2017, about 11% of the sentences carried prison terms of more than five years. In 2017, 87% did.
A Chinese foreign ministry official rejected the findings of the HRW report, saying the rights group "has always been full of prejudice on issues related to China, often spreading false statements to smear China, and their allegations should not be trusted".
Beijing, seeking to settle scores, already has sanctioned "people that behaved badly on Hong Kong-related issues", including HRW director Kenneth Roth.
China's treatment and incarceration of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, which include accusations of systematic gang rape, forcibly sterilisation of women and imposition of a regime of forced labour, have drawn a growing chorus of international condemnation.
The US State Department has said China's actions in Xinjiang amount to genocide, while Canadian lawmakers on Tuesday passed a similar declaration.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Wednesday denounced China's policies towards the Uighur minority.
Speaking by video link at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Le Drian said that witness accounts and documents from Xinjiang pointed to "unjustifiable practices towards Uighurs, and a system of large-scale surveillance and institutionalised repression".
After initially denying the existence of camps in Xinjiang, Beijing later defended them as vocational training centres aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamic extremism.
Beijing's treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang was a "shining example" of China's human rights progress, said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi Monday.
China has "always committed" itself to protecting human rights, he said, citing the growth of per capita GDP and life expectancy in Xinjiang and Tibet as evidence of the protection of human rights.
In January, Chinese diplomats defended a recent and drastic population decline in Xinjiang as a women's rights success, dismissing credible independent research on the regime's use of forced sterilisation.
"The minds of [Uighur] women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines," China's embassy in the United States tweeted, citing an unpublished report on population change in Xinjiang since 2018 by the Xinjiang Development Research Centre.
Tibetans have also suffered harsh restrictions on their religion and culture under Chinese rule -- including the demolition of monasteries -- which culminated in several self-immolation protests by Tibetans in recent years, say rights groups and activists.