Exiled Uighurs urged the International Criminal Court on Tuesday to investigate China for genocide and crimes against humanity, filing a huge dossier of evidence with the Hague-based court to back their case.
The evidence handed to the ICC's prosecutor accuses China of locking more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in re-education camps and of forcibly sterilizing women.
China has called the forced sterilization accusations baseless and says the facilities in the northwestern Xinjiang region are job training centers aimed at steering people away from terrorism.
"Today is a very historic day for us." Salih Hudayar, prime minister of the self-styled East Turkestan government in exile, told a virtual press conference held in Washington and The Hague.
China is not an ICC member but lawyers for the Uighurs said the court could follow the example of its ongoing probe into the treatment of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar, which is also not party to the tribunal.
ICC judges ruled in 2018 that the Rohingya investigation could go ahead because the situation in Myanmar affects people in neighboring Bangladesh, which is a member of the ICC.
Rodney Dixon, a London-based human rights lawyer for the Uighurs, said it was a "historic breakthrough" and "hopefully a turning of the tide as the ICC can now act."
The evidence filed with the court showed that China was guilty of "harsh repressive measures" over more than a decade, he told the press conference from The Hague.
"These include mass internments in excess of a million people, murders, disappearances, torture, and harrowing accounts of sterilizations and birth control measures," said Dixon.
The dossier includes a list of senior Chinese Communist Party members who are allegedly responsible for the treatment of the Uighurs including President Xi Jinping.
Dixon said following the example of the Myanmar case begun by the ICC prosecutor last year showed there was a "clear way which allows the ICC to exercise jurisdiction."
The case was possible because crimes including forced deportations back to China happened in Tajikistan and Cambodia, which are both ICC members, the dossier filed by the exiles says.
The ICC has no obligation to consider complaints filed to the prosecutor, who decides independently what cases to submit to judges at the court, set up in 2002 to achieve justice for the world's worst crimes.