US religious freedom commissioner says 'no excuse' for Trump delay on Chinese sanctions

shutterstock 1080713477 President Donald Trump at the White House, 2018. | Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

A federal religious freedom commissioner has said there is "no excuse" for the Trump administration "delaying action" to place sanctions on Chinese officials for abuses committed in the mass internment of Uyghurs.  

Nury Turkel, a commissioner of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said in a statement to CNA Wednesday that "USCIRF is disappointed that the U.S. government has not yet enacted targeted sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the mass detention of Uyghur and other Muslims."

President Donald Trump signed legislation on June 17 that would impose financial and visa sanctions on individuals complicit in abuses in Xinjiang. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act directs the president to impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act-one of several laws authorizing the President to sanction human rights abusers.

China has established a network of camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) where as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities are or have been detained, according to estimates by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (China Commission).

In the camps, there have been reports of detainees subjected to forced labor, indoctrination, and torture. Chinese officials initially denied the existence of the camps before acknowledging them, yet describing them as vocational training centers.

Turkel, a lawyer and Uyghur rights advocate appointed to USCIRF by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that these abuses cannot be denied, citing reports of human rights groups and official leaked documents that implicate "Chen Quanguo, Zhu Hailun, and other senior Chinese officials" in the abuses.

"There is no excuse for delaying action against China," Turkel said in the statement sent to CNA.

Last week, Trump told Axios that he had not yet implemented Treasury sanctions against Chinese officials complicit in the abuses in Xinjiang because "we were in the middle of a major trade deal."

"When you say the Magnitsky Act, just so you know, nobody's mentioned it specifically to me with regard to China," Trump said.

In addition to USCIRF, other human rights advocates have publicly criticized the lack of sanctions. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chair of the China Commission, tweeted on Monday that Trump was "lying" when he said he had not been told of the connection between Magnitsky sanctions and Chinese officials.

"Did you really not even know the topic of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act you just signed into law?" McGovern asked.

Other religious freedom advocates have pressed the administration to act quickly and implement sanctions, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) who tweeted that the administration "must fully implement the law" after it was signed.

Rubio was one of the China Commission co-chairs who wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in 2018 and again in 2019, asking for sanctions against complicit Chinese officials and entities. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) also led the 2018 letter, and McGovern and Rubio led the 2019 letter.

President Trump's stance on the Chinese government and mass detention camps has been in the spotlight recently, after former White House national security advisor John Bolton claimed that Trump gave his approval to Chinese president Xi Jinping on plans to establish the camps in Xinjiang.

Bolton has said that "Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do." He made the claims in a June 17 essay in the Wall Street Journal, adapted from his newly-published White House memoir "The Room Where It Happened."

Asked about Bolton's claims during an interview Monday, Trump said the book "is a total lie, or mostly a lie." 

"Everybody was in the room and nobody heard what Bolton heard," the president said, adding that he believes Bolton's book violated federal law by including classified information.

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