Caravanserai
Human Rights

China accused of 'harvesting' organs from religious, ethnic minorities

By Caravanserai and AFP

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A boy lies on his hospital bed with his eyes covered with bandages in a hospital in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, China, on August 27, 2013. The six-year-old boy from northern China was drugged and had his eyes gouged out, reports said, in a gruesome attack that may have been carried out by a ruthless organ trafficker. [STR/AFP]

GENEVA -- China appears to be targeting specific ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities held in detention -- including Uighurs and other Muslims -- for "forced organ harvesting", a group of human rights experts reported to the United Nations (UN).

The experts said they have received "credible information" that detainees may be subjected to blood tests and organ examinations, including ultrasound and X-rays, without their consent, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in a statement Monday (June 14).

The exam results were then registered in a database of living organ sources for transplants, the experts added.

"Forced organ harvesting in China appears to be targeting specific ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities held in detention, often without being explained the reasons for arrest or given arrest warrants, at different locations," they said.

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Close-up on a banner hung by members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement during a demonstration in front of the Eiffel Tower on the Trocadero Esplanade, on October 6, 2013, in Paris, to protest against apparent organ harvesting on Falun Gong practitioners in China. [Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP]

The groups targeted include Falun Gong practitioners, Uighurs, Tibetans, Muslims and Christians.

"The most common organs removed from the prisoners are reportedly hearts, kidneys, livers, corneas and, less commonly, parts of livers," the experts said.

The 12 independent experts, who are mandated by the UN but do not speak on its behalf, said they were "extremely alarmed" by the allegations.

'Serious human rights violations'

UN rights experts had previously raised concerns about forced organ harvesting from prisoners with the Chinese government back in 2006 and 2007.

Beijing at that time had not provided sufficient data on questions regarding the sources of organs for transplants, the experts said.

"In this context, the lack of available data and information-sharing systems are obstacles to the successful identification and protection of victims of trafficking and effective investigation and prosecution of traffickers," the OHCHR statement said.

China first admitted to using prisoners as organ donors in 2005, and vowed to stop the practice in 2013 and again in 2014, when the regime announced it would stop removing organs from executed prisoners.

Beijing says the practice ended in 2015.

"Despite the gradual development of a voluntary organ donation system, information continues to emerge regarding serious human rights violations in the procurement of organs for transplants in China," the UN experts said.

Concerns remain over the lack of effective oversight.

The China Organ Transplant Response System (COTRS) was developed in 2011 to standardise and regulate the voluntary organ donor system in China.

COTRS claims a substantial increase in voluntary organ donation between 2010 and 2016, but the organisation has not provided strong evidence to back up those claims.

Annual voluntary deceased donors in China rose from 34 in 2010 to 4,080 in 2016, according to COTRS, while the number of kidneys and livers transplanted rose from 63 in 2010 to 10,481 in 2016.

'Secrecy, silence and obfuscation'

Independent analysts and legal experts doubt those data.

Some or all of the data provided by COTRS has been falsified, according to the "China Tribunal", which held hearings in 2019 and presented its final report in March 2020.

The number of operations is more likely to be between 60,000 and 100,000 per year, the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC) said in a 2016 investigative report.

"The Tribunal's figures are denied by the Chinese, but the figures the Chinese themselves provide about their volunteer system are believed to both underestimate the actual number of transplants and to be fraudulent based on statistical analysis," said Wendy Rogers, professor in clinical ethics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

In December 2018, the Tribunal issued an interim judgment saying all seven members "are certain -- unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt -- that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims".

Pinning down the exact number of victims is difficult.

During hearings, the Tribunal said, it contended with "a pervasive culture of secrecy, silence and obfuscation" by the Chinese regime.

Nonetheless, it is "self-evident" that the substantial increase did not come from voluntary donors since, during the specified time period, a voluntary donation system either did not exist or existed only in pilot form, the Tribunal said.

Investigating allegations of genocide

British barrister Geoffrey Nice chaired the China Tribunal and he is currently chairing the "Uyghur Tribunal", which is looking into whether China is guilty of genocide in its treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.

"Allegations made against the PRC [People's Republic of China] are grave," Nice said June 4 at the opening of the first four-day hearing. Another hearing is scheduled for September 10-13, ahead of the intended publication of a report in December.

Beijing has imprisoned more than one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims -- including ethnic Kazakhs -- in as many as 400 facilities that China calls "vocational training centres" or "re-education centres".

These facilities, however, are widely reported to be involuntary detention centres that some have likened to "concentration camps".

The allegations against China include "killings, serious bodily or mental harm including torture, rape and other sexual violence, enslavement, forced separation of children from their parents, forced sterilisation, forcible transfer or deportation, apartheid, forced labour, forced organ harvesting, enforced disappearances, destruction of cultural or religious heritage, persecution, forced marriages and the imposition of Han Chinese men into Uighur households", according to a description on the tribunal's website.

Moreover, China has arrested over 1,000 imams and religious figures as part of its crackdown against Muslims in Xinjiang, the Uyghur Human Rights Project said last month.

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Chinese fascism

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