Washington, US – The US has unveiled a raft of new rights-abuse sanctions Friday on senior officials and entities in eight countries, including a Chinese firm specialising in facial recognition technology and a giant cartoon studio in North Korea.
Timed for International Human Rights Day and supported in part by Britain and Canada, the sanctions took aim at officials accused of abetting the crackdown on anti-coup protestors in Myanmar, the oppression of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region and political violence in Bangladesh under the guise of a war on drugs.
“Our actions today, particularly those in partnership with the United Kingdom and Canada, send a message that democracies around the world will act against those who abuse the power of the state to inflict suffering and repression,” the US Treasury Department said.
It said China’s artificial intelligence company SenseTime, and two ethnic Uyghur political leaders in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir and Erken Tuniyaz, took part in the sweeping oppression of Uyghurs.
The sanctions and blacklisting can prevent individuals from obtaining visas to the United States, block assets under US jurisdiction, and prevent the targets from doing business with US individuals or entities – effectively locking them out of the US banking system.
Zakir was the chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China from at least 2018 to 2021, and Tuniyaz is current acting chairman.
Zakir has defended the prison camps as “education centers” that teach people Mandarin and “the true meaning of religion.”
But international rights organizations have called them a central tool in the Chinese government’s “genocidal” policies towards Uyghurs.
“The mass detention of Uyghurs is part of an effort by (Chinese) authorities to use detentions and data-driven surveillance to create a police state in the Xinjiang region,” the Treasury said.
The Treasury said SenseTime’s facial recognition programs were designed in part to be used in Xinjiang against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities, more than one million of whom have been incarcerated in prison camps.
The move put new pressure on SenseTime, which was preparing to list its shares in the coming week on Hong Kong’s stock market in an initial public offering.
The company, which Washington says is part of China’s “military-industrial complex,” had already been placed on the US Department of Commerce’s blacklist in 2019 because its technology had been used for mass surveillance in Xinjiang.
SenseTime strongly criticized the decision, saying in a statement it was “caught in the middle of geopolitical tension.”
“We strongly oppose the designation and accusations that have been made in connection with it. The accusations are unfounded and reflect a fundamental misperception of our Company,” the firm said.
First Biden sanctions on North Korea
The Treasury also announced the first new US sanctions to target North Korea since President Joe Biden took office, a move that comes after months of attempting to engage Pyongyang in talks on its nuclear program.
The Treasury accused Pyongyang’s government-run animation firm, SEK Studio, and companies and individuals related to it, of exploiting North Korean workers to earn much-needed foreign currency and avoid sanctions on the country.
SEK Studio has an international reputation and has contributed work to big-budget animated features including Disney’s “Pocahontas” and “The Lion King.”
Also hit with sanctions was North Korean Minister of People’s Armed Forces, Ri Yong Gil.
In additional actions to mark Human Rights Day 2021, the Treasury added four Myanmar state and regional chief ministers to its sanctions blacklist, accusing them of participating in “brutal crackdowns” against the Myanmar people.
A Bangladesh internal security unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, which is accused of involvement in hundreds of disappearances and nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, was also included.
Six current or former officials of the Rapid Action Battalion were also sanctioned.
In a parallel move, the US State Department announced on Friday the blacklisting of 12 officials from China, Uganda, Belarus, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Mexico “for their involvement in gross violations of human rights.”
“We are determined to put human rights at the center of our foreign policy, and we reaffirm this commitment by using appropriate tools and authorities to draw attention to and promote accountability for human rights violations and abuses,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken.