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In Italy, lawyers file Uyghur forced labor complaints about tomato paste! This is an original article from Radio Free Asia!

Protesters in Salerno, Italy, oppose the arrival of containers of tomato paste allegedly produced by Uyghur forced labor in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, May 29, 2024. (@coldiretti via X) Photo: RFA

Dozens of containers of tomato paste exported from Xinjiang to Italy are the subject of domestic criminal and international complaints filed by rights lawyers on behalf of Uyghur advocacy groups who allege that the goods were produced using Uyghur forced labor.

They were among 82 containers of agricultural products from China’s state-owned Xinjiang Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Investment (Group) Co., Ltd. shipped by rail and sea from Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to southern Italy in late April, according to the plaintiffs. 

The shipment also sparked outrage among Italian farmers who protested against the arrival of the cheaper processed tomato products from China in what they said were unfair imports.

Xinjiang, a major producer of tomato products, accounted for at least 80 percent of the total tomato products produced in China in 2023, according to Chinese figures.

Uyghurs and other Turkic groups in Xinjiang have been persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party for decades, including being forced to perform labor that benefits state-owned companies.

Amid much fanfare, the containers transported by rail as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative arrived in Salerno, Italy, at the end of May, according to Italy’s StraLi, a nonprofit group based in Turin that promotes the protection of rights through the judicial system.

On May 30, StraLi filed a criminal complaint demanding that the goods be seized as evidence and that a criminal investigation take place on behalf of the World Uyghur Congress and the U.K.-based Lawyers for Uyghur Rights.   

It also filed a submission to the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights on June 3, requesting a communication to the Italian government to seize the goods and investigate the companies involved in the importation.

New EU law

The move comes less than two months after the European Parliament approved a new regulation banning products made with force labor from entering the European Union. Uyghur advocates have praised the law, saying it will help clamp down on China’s use of forced labor in far-western Xinjiang.

The EU’s 27 member countries must approve the Forced Labour Regulation for it to enter into force and will have three years to implement it. 

“This legal challenge addresses both violations of fundamental principles of human dignity and international law instruments, as well as calling for the seizure of these recently imported goods under national law,” said a statement issued by these groups on June 3

The groups have presented evidence from Adrian Zenz, senior fellow and director in China studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, highlighting the prevalence of forced labor products from Xinjiang, the statement said.

StraLi lawyer Loide Cambisano, who’s in charge of the case, said this was not the first time that goods produced with Uyghur forced labor have been exported to Italy. 

“Agricultural products and tomatoes in particular have arrived in Italy from the same region in China,” she told Radio Free Asia on June 4. “It’s most likely that slavery and labor exploitation is occurring.”

StraLi is seeking an immediate halt of the unloading of the tomato paste at the port of Salerno and a ban on its distribution in Italy, she said. 

“We’re also asking for the end of the importation of any goods in the future which are made and transported from Xinjiang,” she said.

‘Conspiracy to support slavery’

Michael Polak, a London-based barrister who chairs Lawyers for Uyghur Rights, said the domestic criminal complaint argues that the goods violated Italian law and would hold accountable those responsible for slave labor in Xinjiang’s agricultural sector. 

“On the national level, we say this importation is in breach of Italian domestic law in relation to the encouragement or conspiracy to support slavery.”

As for the complaint filed with the U.N. Working Group, it alleges that China has violated international laws, specifically Articles 23 and 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Polak said. 

The transportation route combining rail and sea transportation services is a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature debt and infrastructure program, according to Chinese media. 

The shipment occurred despite Italy’s pullout from the BRI in 2023.

Human rights advocates and members of the Italian agricultural NGO Coldiretti — Europe’s largest agricultural organization — protested the arrival of the shipment at the port of Salerno on May 29 to show their opposition to what they consider unfair imports and the exploitation of Uyghurs and other Turkic people in Xinjiang. 

A Coldiretti official told RFA on June 4 that it is very important that products imported to Italy be produced under the same working conditions as those in Italy. 

Coldiretti’s President Ettore Prandini previously testified in the Italian Senate against the exportation of Chinese workers or what he called unfair imports that did not comply with European standards.

Coldiretti and Filiera Italia indicated that the World Tomato Processing Council, an international nonprofit organization representing the tomato processing industry, estimated that China would produce 7.3 billion kilograms, or over 8 million tons, of processed tomato products in 2023, surpassing Italy’s production. 

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