* Regional governor says new students free “to come and go”
* Says foreign estimates of those held are fabrication
* Accuses the United States of launching smear campaign
* Detentions are part of anti-terror campaign, China says (adds comments from foreign ministry spokeswoman)
By Cate Cadell
BEIJING, Dec 9 (Reuters) – People held in camps in China’s Xinjiang region have now “graduated” and new trainees will have the freedom to come and go, the regional governor said on Monday.
Governor Shohrat Zakir also hit out at Western criticism of the camps and said the United States had launched a smear campaign against Xinjiang.
The United Nations and human rights groups estimate that between 1 million and 2 million people, mostly ethnic Uighur Muslims, have been detained in harsh conditions as part of what Beijing calls an anti-terrorism campaign.
China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uighurs and says the camps provide vocational training. It describes the detainees as students.
“At present the trainees who have participated…have all graduated,” Zakir told a news conference in Beijing. “With the help of the government, stable employment has been achieved and their quality of life has been improved.”
Xinjiang will continue with training based on “independent will” and “the freedom to come and go”, he said.
China has not provided any official figures on how many people have been held in the camps but Zakhir said foreign estimates were “pure fabrication”. He gave no details.
He also called a measure passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that condemned China’s treatment of the Uighur minority a severe violation of international law and a gross interference in China’s internal affairs.
“The U.S. is getting restless and has launched a smear campaign against Xinjiang,” Zakir said. “But no force can stop Xinjiang’s progress toward stability and development.”
Claims about the camps are hard to verify as China only allows periodic supervised visits and gives little information on their operations.
In July, a Xinjiang official said most people had returned to society from the camps. Asked on Monday how many people had completed the training, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she could not give an exact number.
“Because the number of people participating in these training centres is dynamic, there’s coming and going, so it’s very difficult to give an exact number,” Hua told reporters at a separate briefing.
Human rights groups and former detainees have said conditions in the camps are poor, with inmates subject to psychological and physical abuse.
At Zakir’s news conference, images of past violence were displayed in excerpts from an English-language documentary, “Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang” aired on state broadcaster CGTN last week.
Hua expressed disappointment at the lack of foreign media coverage of the documentary despite the intense concern over the Xinjiang issue.
She said there had been no terrorist attack in Xinjiang in the past three years due to the success of the camps.
The U.S. Uighur Act passed by the House of Representatives last week requires the U.S. president to condemn abuses against Muslims and calls for the closure of the camps in Xinjiang.
It also calls on President Donald Trump to impose sanctions on a member of China’s powerful politburo, Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.
The issue, along with Washington’s support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, complicates prospects for a near-term deal to end a 17-month long trade war between China and the United States.
(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Additional reporting by Huizhong Wu in Beijing; Writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Angus MacSwan)