UPDATED at 3:30 P.M. EDT on 2022-10-12
A Kazakh former internment camp inmate is suing the United Kingdom’s trade secretary for allowing imports of cotton he believes were obtained through forced labor in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region.
Erbakit Otarbay was arrested in Xinjiang in 2017 for watching illegal videos on Islam and installing the WhatsApp instant messaging service on his cell phone, amid a crackdown there by the Chinese government on Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities.
The next year, Otarbay was detained in an internment camp, where he was tortured and forced to work in an apparel factory, he said.
“There was an auto repair shop, a bakery, a sweet shop and a barber shop,” he told Radio Free Asia. “I told them I was not good at baking, and that I liked sewing.”
Otarbay joined a group of mostly women at the garment factory, who included not only Uyghurs, but also other ethnic minorities such as Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. He produced cloth loops for belt buckles.
After he was released in 2019, Otarbay wanted to call attention to the suffering of detainees and those being forced to work, he said.
“If you ever get out, go as far as you can to every country and call for our release and tell them what the Chinese government is doing to us,” he said.
As many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslims are believe to be held in network of internment camps that China has set up to prevent purported “religious extremism” and “terrorism.” Inmates have been subjected to torture, rape, forced sterilizations of female detainees and forced labor.
Beijing has insisted that the camps were vocational training facilities and that they are now closed.
The United States and nine Western parliaments have declared that the repression of predominantly Muslim groups in Xinjiang amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity.
Call for import restrictions
In a pre-action letter to Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, Otarbay called on the U.K. government to address an “ongoing failure” to impose any restrictions on cotton imports from Xinjiang, the U.K’s Sky News reported on Oct. 9.
China is a major cotton producer, with most of it coming from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights issued a report at the end of August saying that China’s repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang province “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
But China has vowed to fight any U.N. action on human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang cited in the OHCHR report.
In December 2021, an independent tribunal in London found that China committed genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, based on testimony from dozens of witnesses, including formerly jailed Uyghurs and legal and academic experts on China’s actions in the region.
Otarbay also testified at the tribunal about his detention, saying that authorities confined him to a metal tiger chair, used to immobilize suspects during interrogations, for hours.
Otarbay emigrated from China’s Xinjiang to Kazakhstan with his family in 2014, but returned three years later. He was arrested and sent to a “re-education camp.” After a year, he was taken to another detention center where he was forced to work without pay in a clothes factory inside the facility, until he was released in May 2019.
“What I tell the U.K. government is ban all the goods from Xinjiang,” Otarbay told RFA. “They have to take measures. They should globally expose the genocide that China is committing.”
“They have to inspect all the imported goods from China, where they were manufactured, who made them and so on, and they should take actions to stop the forced labor,” he said.
Though the U.K. government has measures in place to ensure that its companies are not complicit in alleged forced labor practices in Xinjiang or involved in the region’s supply chain, but critics say enforcement is lax.
“It is very disappointing that the British government have not taken a lead in this issue,” said Otarbay’s attorney, Paul Conrathe. But he said he is hopeful that the court will recognize that the government’s actions are “unlawful.”
14 days to respond
The trade secretary now has 14 days to respond, he said. Their next steps will depend on the reply.
Rahima Mahmut, U.K. director of the World Uyghur Congress, or the WUC, said the British government has not gone far enough to stop goods made with Uyghur forced labor from entering the U.K.
“Even though the U.K. government openly and loudly criticized China’s horrific treatment of the Uyghurs, so far it has not taken any meaningful actions in terms of ending Uyghur forced labor,” she told RFA. “It has not stopped the flow of products [made with forced labor] into [the UK].”
Otarbay is “the best plaintiff to pursue this case” against the U.K. trade secretary, and WUC is working closely with him, she added.
To address concerns about Uyghur forced labor, the United States enacted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in 2021, which assumes goods made in Xinjiang are produced with forced labor and thus banned under the U.S. 1930 Tariff Act. The law requires U.S. companies that import products from the region to prove that they have not been manufactured at any stage with Uyghur forced labor.
The European Union has proposed a total ban on all goods produced using forced labor at any stage of production, harvest or extraction, including clothing, cotton and commodities, irrespective of where they have been made.
“It is very commendable that the American government has taken a lead in effectively banning imports that derive from Xinjiang, and also that the European Commission is looking at doing something similar,” Conrathe said. “This is a very important case dealing with one of the most appalling situations in terms of human rights abuses in the world today.”
Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
The story was updated to say that the U.S. and some Western parliaments have determined that the abuses constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.