By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Western countries including France, Germany and the United States called on China on Tuesday to close down detention camps that activists say hold 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims.
But China rejected Western criticism of suspected mass detention and heavy surveillance of Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang, dismissing the allegations as "seriously far away from facts".
"We will not accept politically-driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases," Le Yucheng, Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, told the United Nations Human Rights Council.
At a debate at the Geneva forum - which reports on alleged violations in each U.N. member state every five years and reviewed China's record on Tuesday - Beijing said it protected the freedoms of its 55 ethnic minorities.
China has said that Xinjiang faces a threat from Islamist militants and separatists. It rejects all accusations of mistreatment and denies mass internment, although Chinese officials have said some citizens guilty of minor offences were being sent to vocational centres to work.
Le, referring to Xinjiang, said: "Stability is most important, prevention should be put first. Setting up the training centres is a preventive measure to combat terrorism."
Another Chinese delegate from Xinjiang said that authorities were "providing free-of-charge vocational training with a diploma after exams" to those who had been "coerced or lured" by extremist groups.
For the last 22 months there had been "no incident of violent terrorism", said another Chinese delegate.
One after another, however, Western countries spoke out against what they described as a deterioration in China's human rights since the last review, especially over its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
"We are alarmed by the government of China’s worsening crackdown on Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," U.S. charge d'affaires Mark Cassayre said.
The United States urged China to "abolish all forms of arbitrary detention, including internment camps in Xinjiang, and immediately release the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of individuals detained in these camps", he said.
China should release activists including Wang Quanzhang, Ilham Tohti and Huang Qi, Cassayre said.
Beijing should "halt massive imprisonment" and "guarantee freedom of religion and belief, including in Tibet and Xinjiang," French Ambassador Francois Rivasseau said.
A U.N. panel of human rights experts said on Aug. 10 it had received many credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uighurs in China were being held in what resembles a "massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy."
Up to 1,000 Tibetan and Uighur protesters from around Europe protested outside the U.N. headquarters in Geneva during Tuesday's debate. They carried signs saying "STOP China ethnic cleansing of Uighurs" and "Tibet dying, China lies".
From one million to 3 million Muslims are in "concentration camps" in Xinjiang, Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, told Reuters Television.
"So that is why we are here gathering to protest against the Chinese government brutal crackdown on east Turkestan, on the Uighur people, the Tibetan people, and also we ask the United Nations (to) take concrete actions and hold responsible, hold accountable the Chinese government.”
(Additional reporting by Cecile Mantovani and Denis Balibouse; Editing by Mark Heinrich)