BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union imposed Monday sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of responsibility for abuses against Uyghur Muslims, provoking swift retaliation from Beijing.
The four are senior officials in the northwest region of Xinjiang. The sanctions involve a freeze on the officials’ assets and a ban on them traveling in the bloc. European citizens and companies are not permitted to provide them with financial assistance.
The sanctions move, agreed by EU foreign ministers, was part of a raft of measures targeting alleged human rights offenders around the world, including in North Korea, Libya and Sudan.
China at first denied the existence of camps for detaining Uyghurs in Xinjiang but has since described them as centers to provide job training and to reeducate those exposed to radical jihadi thinking. Officials deny all charges of human rights abuses there.
Xinjiang had been a hotbed of anti-government violence, but Beijing claims its massive security crackdown brought peace in recent years.
China’s Foreign Ministry responded immediately, denouncing the sanctions as “based on nothing but lies and disinformation” and issuing its own retaliatory measures.
The ministry announced sanctions against 10 individuals and four institutions that it said had damaged China’s interests and “maliciously spread lies and disinformation.” They and their family members would be barred from entering mainland China, Hong Kong or Macao and cut off from financial dealings with those areas, the ministry said.
Among those targeted was Adrian Zenz, a U.S.-based German scholar who has publicized abuses against minority groups in China’s regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. China has said companies and individuals have petitioned to sue Zenz, but it wasn’t clear who the plaintiffs were or how they would pursue legal action across borders.
Others targeted for sanctions include five members of the European Parliament: Reinhard Butikofer, Michael Gahler, Raphael Glucksmann, Ilhan Kyuchyuk and Miriam Lexmann.
The ministry did not say what measures would be taken against the organizations. They were listed as the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union, where the 27 national envoys decide foreign and security policy; the EU Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights; the German-based Mercator Institute for China Studies; and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Denmark.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting of foreign ministers, expressed dismay at China’s reaction and said the EU’s sanctions respect the “highest standards of rule of law.”
“Rather than change its policies and address our legitimate concerns, China has again turned a blind eye, and these measures are regrettable and unacceptable,” Borrell said.
“There will be no change in European Union determination to defend human rights and to respond to serious violations and abuses,” he added.
Last week, China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, had warned that Beijing would retaliate if the EU went ahead with its sanctions.
“We want dialogue, not confrontation. We ask the EU side to think twice. If some insist on confrontation, we will not back down, as we have no options other than fulfilling our responsibilities to the people in our country,” he said.
The new EU sanction system is similar to the Magnitsky Act — Obama-era legislation that authorizes the U.S. government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets and ban them from entering the United States.
As part of Monday’s move, the EU also imposed sanctions over repression in North Korea, “extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in Libya, torture and repression against LGBTI people and political opponents in Chechnya in Russia, and torture, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings in South Sudan and Eritrea,” a statement said.
Those targeted in Libya were Mohammed Khalifa al-Kani, leader of Libya’s notorious al-Kaniyat militia, and his brother Abderrahim al-Kani, a member of the same militia. Both are accused of committing extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances between 2015 and June 2020 in the town of Tarhuna, which they had controlled for years.
Since their escape from Tarhuna last summer following a military defeat, dozens of mass graves have been discovered and attributed to al-Kaniyat militiamen. Last year, the U.S Treasury targeted al-Kaniyat and its leader over the same alleged crimes.