PARIS — French prosecutors have opened an investigation into alleged involvement in crimes against humanity based on claims that global retailers, including Uniqlo and the makers of Skechers shoes and Zara clothes, rely on forced labor of minorities in China’s Xinjiang region.
The Chinese government on Friday reiterated denials of any forced labor in Xinjiang, and lashed out at what it called interference in its internal affairs.
The investigation was opened last month by the crimes against humanity unit of France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office, a judicial official said Friday. The office has special universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes beyond French borders.
The probe was based on a legal complaint filed in France earlier this year by a Uyghur worker in exile and three human rights groups: Sherpa, the Uyghur Institute of Europe and Ethics on the Label Collective.
The investigation doesn’t name a suspected perpetrator, but is aimed at determining who might be at fault and face eventual charges of involvement in crimes against humanity, the judicial official said. Such a procedure is standard under French law. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.
The complaint names Japanese retailer Uniqlo, U.S. shoemaker Skechers, French company SMCP and Spanish retailer Inditex, owner of Zara. The rights groups say the companies are benefiting from a Chinese system of repression against Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
China has come under criticism and sanctions for detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs and and other Muslim minorities for political re-education in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, and for imprisoning or intimidating into silence those it sees as potential opponents from Tibet to Hong Kong.
Uniqlo said in a statement to The AP on Friday that it hadn’t been formally notified of the investigation, but would cooperate fully with French authorities “to reaffirm there is no forced labor in our supply chains.”
The company said none of its production partners are located in Xinjiang. “There has been no evidence of forced labor or any other human rights violation at any of our suppliers. If there is evidence, we will cease to do business with that supplier,” it said.
Skechers said earlier this year that regular audits of its facilities in China have found no sign of forced labor.
Inditex says on its website that it takes “a zero-tolerance approach towards forced labor in any of its manifestations and we implement policies and procedures to ensure that this practice does not take place anywhere in our supply chain.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said Friday: “We have repeatedly stressed that the so-called ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is a lie concocted by a small number of anti-China elements from the U.S. and a few other countries, with the aim of disrupting Xinjiang and containing China.”
“We firmly oppose any external forces interfering in China’s internal affairs through Xinjiang-related issues,” he continued.
The human rights groups celebrated the French investigation and expressed hopes it will help shine a light on what is happening in Xinjiang.
Joe McDonald in Beijing and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed.