Located in China’s far northwest, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) is a huge, sparsely populated area encompassing vast semi-desert steppes in the north and severe desert basins ringed by historic oasis towns in the south. More than half of the region’s population of 22 million people belong to mostly Turkic and predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, including Uyghurs (around 11.3 million), Kazakhs (around 1.6 million) and other populations whose languages, cultures and ways of life vary distinctly from those of the Han who are the majority in “interior” China.
Rich in coal, natural gas and oil and sharing borders with eight different countries, Xinjiang is intertwined with many of China’s economic, strategic and foreign policy goals. But decades of inter-ethnic tensions have led to cycles of sporadic violence and heavy-handed repression. China’s leaders now consider stability in Xinjiang vital to the success of the “Belt and Road Initiative,” a massive global infrastructure development program aimed at strengthening China’s links to Central Asia and beyond.
Since 2017, disturbing details have emerged from the region describing intrusive surveillance, arbitrary detention, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation being carried out there on a massive scale and targeting the region’s Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim peoples. In concluding observations to its August 2018 review of China, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed alarm about reports of arbitrary, prolonged and incommunicado mass detention of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.
Mass detention camps began making their appearance locally in 2014, spreading rapidly throughout Xinjiang after the adoption of regional “Regulations on De-Extremification” in March 2017. The goal of these facilities appears to be replacement of religious affiliation and ethnic identity with secular, patriotic political allegiance. The Chinese government initially denied their existence, but their construction has been documented by recruitment and procurement documents and satellite imagery. Eventually, it acknowledged their existence but claimed that they were voluntary “vocational training centers.”
No one knows exactly how many people have been detained since the crackdown began. One widely accepted estimate, published in May 2018, put the total number of detained at “anywhere between several hundred thousand and just over one million.”
Those sent to detention camps are not put on trial; they have no access to lawyers or right to challenge the decision. Detentions are apparently open-ended and can last weeks, months – possibly even years. Because there is no fixed “sentence,” the authorities are left to decide when an individual has been satisfactorily “educated.”
According to those who have spent time in these centers, life inside for detainees is subject to a harsh discipline all but indistinguishable from that in formal detention facilities. They are lectured about the dangers of “religious radicalism,” made to study Chinese, and forced to memorize legal provisions and patriotic songs and write “self-criticisms” that are key to determining whether they have been sufficiently “educated” for release.
Those who resist or fail to show enough progress reportedly face punishments ranging from verbal abuse to food deprivation, solitary confinement, beatings and use of restraints and stress positions – likely to amount to violations of the absolute prohibition under international law of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. There have been reports of deaths inside the facilities, including suicides of those unable to bear the mistreatment.
China has rejected calls from the international community, including Amnesty International, for it to allow independent experts unrestricted access to Xinjiang. Instead, China has made efforts to silence criticism by inviting delegations from different countries to visit Xinjiang for carefully orchestrated and closely monitored tours.
Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, the founder of “Uyghur Online” website, and a well-known critic of China’s ethnic and religious policies in Xinjiang, was sentenced to life imprisonment on September 23, 2014. He was first taken away from his home in Beijing on January 15, and his wife received the arrest warrant on February 25 telling her that he was being charged with “separatism,” a charge that has often been used against Uyghurs who speak out against human rights violations. He was in solitary confinement until at least early 2016 and has been denied the right to communicate with family and friends aside from minimal visits. He is being held in detention in Urumqi, despite his family living in Beijing – likely a punitive move. Amnesty International considers Ilham Tohti to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression, who should be released immediately and unconditionally.
Guligeina Tashimaimaiti, a PhD student at the University of Technology, Malaysia, was last seen on December 26, 2017 by a friend at Malaysia’s Senai International Airport on her way back to China. Prior to her trip, she had told her friend that she would change her profile photo on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform, every week as a sign that she was safe. She changed her profile photo one week after her return home to Yili in Xinjiang. However, the profile photo remained the same for a couple of weeks after that, until one day it suddenly changed to a black and white photo of something that looked like a prison cell. Her friends and family fear that she might have been detained in a “re-education” camp. Despite being warned by friends and family not to return to the region, Guligeina was worried about her parents, whom she had not been able to contact since her last visit to Yili in February 2017.
Yiliyasijiang Reheman and his wife Mairinisha Abuduaini were expecting their second baby when Yiliyasijiang went missing. Both were studying in Egypt when in July 2017, the government rounded up about 200 Uyghurs, forcing some back to China. Mairinisha, who now lives in Turkey, learned through friends that Yiliyasijiang had been sent back to Xinjiang in China. She suspects he’s in one of China’s secret internment camps where Uyghurs are brainwashed with Chinese government propaganda. “My husband should be released as soon as possible,” she says. “Our children need their father. I will never give up until we can be reunited with my husband.”