BEIJING - Top officials from China's north-west region of Xinjiang mounted a robust defence of its controversial re-education camps on Tuesday (March 12), calling accusations of Muslim inmates being tortured and forcibly interned "ridiculous lies".
Foreign media have been painting a blatantly false picture of these vocational training centres, said governor Shohrat Zakir, who also dismissed Turkey's description of them last month (Feb) as "concentration camps".
Rather, these facilities have brought about dramatic changes to the livelihoods of the Muslim Uighur population and other ethnic minorities, teaching them the national language, the ills of extremism as well as skills to lift them out of poverty, he said.
The government's anti-terror measures have been so effective that there have been no violent attacks in the past two years and three months, Mr Shohrat told delegates and journalists at a meeting that was part of China's ongoing annual parliamentary session.
The meeting was among the most highly anticipated sessions at this year's National People's Congress, drawing hundreds of foreign and local journalists eager to question Xinjiang's most senior authorities over the alleged rampant human rights abuses at the internment camps.
International condemnation has been mounting, with academics, rights groups and journalists describing a regime of terror where more than a million Uighurs and other indigenous Muslims are held without trial, tortured and brainwashed in a network of secret facilities.
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said last week that she is seeking access to China to assess continuing reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions, especially of Muslims in the Xinjiang region.
US lawmakers have also been threatening China with sanctions over its crackdown on its minority Muslim population.
Mr Shohrat, who is chairman of the autonomous region, said on Tuesday that the authorities will not let up on their efforts to counter extremism, citing the Xinjiang people's wishes for the government to take "decisive measures" to safeguard their lives.
Since the 1990s, the restive region and other parts of the country have been hit by a series of terrorist attacks against the backdrop of a separatist movement and ethnic tensions.
"Fighting separatism and extremism is a long-term battle. We can't relax for a moment," said Mr Shohrat. "It does not target a certain ethnic group or religion, but targets violence and crime, separatism and extremism."
The Chinese government has in recent months been on a public relations drive, organising tours for diplomats and journalists to the Xinjiang camps.
When asked how many are in these centres, Mr Shohrat did not give a number, but said it will be reduced.
"When society doesn't need such centres anymore, they will disappear. But the number is very far from the over a million that has been reported."