• Reuters


French prosecutors have opened an investigation into four fashion retailers, including a unit of Japan's Fast Retailing, on suspicion of concealing crimes against humanity in China's Xinjiang region, a judicial source said Thursday.

The procedure is linked to accusations against China over its treatment of minority Muslim Uyghurs in the region such as the use of forced labor, the source said.

The source said that Uniqlo France, Zara owner Inditex, France's SMCP and Skechers were the subject of the investigation, confirming a report by French media website Mediapart.

"An investigation has been opened by the crimes against humanity unit within the anti-terrorism prosecutor's office following the filing of a complaint," the source said. France founded its Central Office to Fight Crimes against Humanity, Genocide and War Crimes in 2013.

Fast Retailing said in a statement from Tokyo that it had not been contacted by French authorities and that none of its production partners are located in Xinjiang.

"If and when notified, we will cooperate fully with the investigation to reaffirm there is no forced labor in our supply chains," it said.

The company lost an appeal with U.S. customs in May after a shipment of Uniqlo men's shirts were impounded because of suspected violations of a ban on Xinjiang cotton.

Inditex said it rejected the claims in the legal complaint, adding that it had conducted rigorous traceability controls and would fully cooperate with the French investigation.

"At Inditex, we have zero tolerance for all forms of forced labor and have established policies and procedures to ensure this practice does not take place in our supply chain," the company said in a statement.

SMCP said it too would cooperate with the French authorities to prove the allegations false.

"SMCP works with suppliers located all over the world and maintains that it does not have direct suppliers in the region mentioned in the press," SMCP said, adding that it regularly audited its suppliers.

Skechers said it does not comment on pending litigation, and referred to a March 2021 statement in which it said it maintained a strict supplier code of conduct.

Two nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) filed a complaint in France in early April against multinationals for concealment of forced labor and crimes against humanity.

U.N. experts and rights groups estimate over a million people, mainly Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in recent years in a vast system of camps in China's western Xinjiang region.

Many former inmates have said they were subject to ideological training and abuse. Rights groups say the camps have been used as a source of low-paid and coercive labor.

China initially denied the camps existed, but has since said they are vocational centers designed to combat extremism. In late 2019, China said all people in the camps had "graduated."

Several Western brands including H&M, Burberry and Nike have been hit by consumer boycotts in China after raising concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang.

In March, the United States, the European Union, the U.K. and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses in the region. Beijing retaliated immediately with its own punitive measures.

Human Rights Watch this year documented what it said could constitute crimes against humanity being committed in Xinjiang.

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