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Has the foreign interference commission lost credibility because Uyghur Canadians refuse to testify?

A Chinese flag is illuminated by sunshine in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on September 22, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld A Chinese flag is illuminated by sunshine in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on September 22, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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As the foreign interference commission kicked off this week, the inquiry received fierce criticism from a diaspora group often targeted by China.

In a statement Wednesday, the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) said its members will not participate in the inquiry, blaming commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue for allowing "a significant security risk" to their community and families back in China.

Some national security experts fear this will undermine the integrity of the inquiry into alleged Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

Why won't Uyghurs testify?

URAP executive director Mehmet Tohti says Uyghur Canadians pulled out to protest Hogue's decision to grant former Liberal MP Han Dong and current Markham Deputy Mayor Michael Chan full standing in the commission.

READ MORE: Former Ontario minister sues CSIS, unidentified leakers, reporters

"We don't want to be questioned by those [who] are allegedly tied up with the Chinese Communist Party," Tohti said.

Both Han and Chan deny the allegations against them, but with full standing, they have access to classified documents submitted to the commission and have the ability to cross-examine witnesses.

"There is something terribly wrong here," Tohti said.

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority group in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Human rights groups accuse Beijing of forcing more than one million of these ethnically Turkic people into forced labour camps.

An August 2022 report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded China is responsible for "serious human rights violations" against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. 

How will this impact the foreign interference inquiry?

Phil Gurski, a former strategic analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), says the commission is missing a key perspective without Uyghur testimony.

"It takes away from the credibility of the inquiry," he said. "Canadians are not going to get a full picture of what China is doing in our country."

Gurski argues with much of the evidence expected to remain classified, testimony from various diaspora groups would help Canadians get a more complete view of the problem.

"If you're going to have a public inquiry, you have to make sure that the information that can be released into the public sphere is released," he said.

Former CSIS director Ward Elcock says while it's important to shed light on communities facing intimidation and threats from Beijing, the Uyghur's absence will have little effect on the commission's overall goal.

"I frankly don't think it has much impact," he said. "The commission of inquiry is not really about foreign interference broadly writ. It's about foreign interference in two elections."

Elcock adds Hogue was left little choice but to grant Dong and Chan full standing.

"Nobody has demonstrated publicly, or demonstrated in a court, that these people are what some people allege them to be," he said.

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