The United States said Friday (November 6) that it had removed from its list of terror groups a shadowy faction regularly blamed by the Chinese regime to justify its harsh crackdown of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.
In a notice in the Federal Register, which publishes new US laws and rules, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was revoking the designation of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a "terrorist organisation."
"ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist," a State Department spokesperson said.
The administration of former US President George W. Bush in 2004 added ETIM, also sometimes called the Turkestan Islamic Party, to a blacklist as it found common cause with China in the US-led "war on terror."
Beijing has regularly blames ETIM for attacks as it justifies its measures in Xinjiang, where rights groups say that 1 million or more Uighurs or other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim people are incarcerated in camps.
But scholars say that the Chinese regime has produced little evidence that ETIM is an organised group or that it is to blame for attacks in Xinjiang, which separatists call East Turkestan.
The Washington-based Uighur Human Rights Project called the State Department's decision "long overdue" and a "definitive rejection of China's claims."
"The harmful effects of China's exploitation of the imagined ETIM threat are real -- 20 years of state terror directed at Uighurs," said the group's executive director, Omer Kanat.
A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry on Friday expressed China's "strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the US decision".
China has acknowledged camps in Xinjiang but describes them as vocational centres meant to reduce the allure of Islamic radicalism.
Activists say that China is trying to forcibly integrate Uighurs by indoctrinating them with communist ideology and making them renounce Islamic customs.
In September, an investigative report detailed how Chinese authorities have destroyed nearly 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang in recent years as part of that effort.
Pompeo has previously called the mass incarceration "the stain of the century" and US senators across party lines are seeking to declare China's treatment of the Uighurs as genocide.
The Chinese campaign "against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region constitutes genocide", according to the text of a resolution brought forth by the senators in October.
ETIM was listed on the US Terrorism Exclusion List, which affects entry of people into the country, but was never hit with the tougher designation of Foreign Terrorist Organisation.
Hits home in Central Asia
China's treatment of Uighurs and other ethnic Muslims hits close to Central Asia.
About 200 protesters gathered in September in Almaty to demand that Beijing stop meddling in Kazakhstan's internal affairs and to demonstrate against the regime's abuses of ethnic minorities, including Kazakhs living in Xinjiang.
Despite close relations between the two governments, Kazakhstan has emerged as a hub for activism against Beijing's policies in Xinjiang, where thousands of Kazakhs have family ties.
That was largely due to the Atajurt rights group, which posted video testimonies recorded by hundreds of Kazakhs whose relatives had gone missing in the western region.
In 2019, the Chinese regime began boasting that most citizens had "graduated" from the centres, after Kazakhstan said Beijing had allowed hundreds of ethnic Kazakhs with Kazakh residence permits to leave China and reunite with families across the border.
The video appeals and the media attention they attracted played a role in pressuring Beijing, many residents of Kazakhstan say.
Yet other Kazakhs began hearing their relatives had received jail sentences not long after this wave of releases, Mehmet Kasikci, a doctoral student at Arizona State University in the United States who volunteered with the group, told AFP.
"Yes, hundreds of thousands have probably been released from the camps, but few are truly free, and more importantly, hundreds of thousands have also been sent to official prisons," he told AFP.
In a move seen as being aimed at ethnic Kazakhs facing persecution in China, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in May signed amendments to the law on migration that changed the term "Oralman" (returnee) to "kandas" (native, blood related).
Oralmans are ethnic Kazakhs from nearby countries who immigrated to Kazakhstan.
From now on, ethnic Kazakhs who are not Kazakh citizens may take advantage of simpler criteria for receiving permanent residency in Kazakhstan and gaining Kazakh citizenship.