A number of governments, including the U.S., have described China's treatment of Uyghurs as genocide and crimes against humanity, but no official court in any country has ever assessed evidence of China's alleged rights abuses against the Uyghurs. In addition, Chinese officials have vehemently denied allegations of genocide as "lies" concocted by U.S.-led anti-China forces.
Two Uyghur groups, the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), filed a criminal complaint with the Federal Criminal Court in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 16, accusing Chinese officials of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim ethnic groups.
According to Michael Polak, director of Justice Abroad and a lawyer representing the WUC and UHRP, the Uyghur groups are pleading the principle of universal jurisdiction contained in the Argentinian constitution.
"The Chinese regime has managed to escape legal scrutiny of their international crime because of their influence over international institutions," Polak told VOA. "The universal jurisdiction provisions give the possibility that their escape from responsibility may soon be over."
Polak said that there are similar cases currently filed in Argentina in relation to the international crimes allegedly committed against the Rohingya as well as cases filed against Spanish individuals for Franco-era crimes.
Some Western governments and human rights organizations accuse China of arbitrary detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in reeducation camps, genocide and forced labor in Xinjiang.
In 2020, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, the U.S. announced sanctions on Chinese entities and officials, including former Chinese Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang Chen Quanguo, in connection with "serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities" in Xinjiang.
China first denied the existence of reeducation camps and later said that the facilities exist as vocational training schools to teach Chinese language and law to people affected by terrorism, religious extremism and separatism.
Liu Pengyu, Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Washington, said that over the past 60-plus years, the Uyghur population in Xinjiang has grown from 2.2 million to about 12 million.
"The accusation of 'genocide' in Xinjiang is a flat-out lie of the century," Liu told VOA in an email. "Whatever ploys are used; a lie repeated a thousand times is still a lie."
According to Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager at World Uyghur Congress, the groups submitted statements from witnesses of fact, from victims and from experts. She said the submission of the case marked a crucial time for the Uyghur people.
"[B]ecause if the judge decides to open the case, then an investigation starts and further evidence will be submitted by the WUC and UHRP that demonstrates that the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and torture are taking place against the Uyghur people as well as other ethnic Turkic people in the Uyghur region," Arkin told VOA.
With such evidence before the court, according to Arkin, the judge can indict the defendants, issue arrest warrants and send the case to trial.
"If a case is opened against the individuals most responsible for the crimes against humanity and genocide against the Uyghurs, the judge can summons witnesses to attend court to give their evidence on oath," Arkin said.
"This would mark a historic opportunity for the Uyghur people and the first time that the evidence of the atrocities being committed against them is presented in a court. Therefore, the submission of the complaint is the first step on this historic journey."
According to Peter Irwin, senior program officer with the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Argentina is the first and only country to which an international criminal complaint regarding the Uyghurs in China has been submitted.
"There haven't been any cases taken up like this before, though a number of governments have called the treatment of Uyghurs genocide already, along with the Uyghur Tribunal's verdict, a report by Newlines Institute, and a legal opinion from early 2021," Irwin told VOA.
Last December, after hearings with dozens of witnesses, the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent judicial effort led by Sir Geoffrey Nice, an expert in international criminal law, determined that China had committed genocide against the Uyghurs via birth control and sterilization measures. Additionally, the tribunal said it had found evidence of crimes against humanity, torture and sexual abuse.