UN human rights experts raised the alarm on Thursday about alleged political reeducation camps of Muslim Uighurs and called for the immediate release of the detainees on the "pretext of fighting terrorism."
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination cited estimates that up to one million Uyghurs could be involuntarily detained in extralegal detention in Xinjiang province, western China.
His conclusions were issued after a two-day review of China's record, the first since 2009, earlier this month.
China's Foreign Ministry rejected the accusations at the time, saying the anti-China forces were behind criticism of Beijing's policies in Xinjiang. It has never officially confirmed the existence of detention centers there.
China has said that Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plan attacks and stir up tensions between the Muslim Uighur majority and the Chinese ethnic majority.
But the panel criticized China's "broad definition of terrorism and the vague references to extremism and the unclear definition of separatism in Chinese law." This could be used against those who peacefully exercise their rights and facilitate the "criminal profile" of ethnic and religious minorities, including Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists and Mongolians, he said.
In its conclusions, the panel said it was alarmed by: "Numerous reports of detention of a large number of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without charge or trial, on the pretext of fighting against terrorism and religious extremism. "
"We recommend to China if this practice exists, to stop it, we ask China to free people if they do not have a legal reason to be detained," panel member Nicolas Marugan told Reuters Television.
Chinese officials were not immediately available to comment on the panel's criticism on Thursday.
& # 39; Wrapped in secret & # 39;
The independent experts regretted that there were no official data on people detained "for non-threatening expressions of Muslim ethno-religious culture as daily greetings".
During the review, experts said they had received many credible reports that around one million Uyghurs are being held in what resembles a "mass internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy." Panel member Gay McDougall described it as a "zone without rights."
The panel expressed concern over reports of "mass surveillance directed disproportionately against ethnic Uyghurs," including through frequent police checks and scanning of mobile phones at checkpoints.
He also cited reports alleging that many Uyghurs who had left China were forced to return to the country, and asked Beijing to reveal his whereabouts and status.
McDougall cited allegations that more than 100 Uighur students who returned to China from countries such as Egypt and Turkey had been arrested and some died in custody.
A bipartisan group of US lawmakers on Wednesday urged Washington to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for abuses of Muslim rights in Xinjiang, saying the region is becoming a "high-tech police state."
The UN panel urged China to allow Tibetans access to passports to travel abroad and to promote the use of the Tibetan language in education, the judicial system and the media.
"The reports we have received say that the Tibetan is not on an equal footing with the Chinese Mandarin in Tibet," Marugan said, adding that Tibetans had the right to speak in their own language and to preserve it.
The panel asked China to report within a year on its main concerns.