China must end its campaign of systematic repression and shed light on the fate of up to one million predominantly Muslim people arbitrarily detained in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Amnesty International said in a new briefing published today.
The past year has seen an intensifying government campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups. Most of the detainees’ families have been kept in the dark about their loved ones’ fate and are often too frightened to speak out.
“The Chinese government must not be allowed to continue this vicious campaign against ethnic minorities in northwest China. Governments across the world must hold the Chinese authorities to account for the nightmare unfolding in the XUAR,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia Director.
“Families have suffered enough. Hundreds of thousands of families have been torn apart by this massive crackdown. They are desperate to know what has happened to their loved ones and it is time the Chinese authorities give them answers.”
In a new briefing, China: Where are they? Time for answers about mass detentions in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Amnesty International highlights the anguish of people who have lost touch with relatives and friends inside the XUAR and who fear they have been detained.
The organization interviewed more than 100 people outside of China whose relatives in XUAR are still missing, as well as individuals who were tortured while in detention camps there.
The internment of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the XUAR has intensified since March 2017, when a “Regulation on De-extremification” was adopted in the region. Open or even private displays of religious and cultural affiliation, including growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer, fasting or avoidance of alcohol, or possessing books or articles about Islam or Uighur culture can be considered “extremist” under the regulation.
Travel abroad for work or education, particularly to majority Muslim countries, or contact with people outside China are also major reasons for suspicion. Male, female; young, old; urban, rural, all are at risk of being detained.
The ubiquitous security checks that are now a routine part of daily life for all in the XUAR provide ample opportunity to search mobile phones for suspicious content or check people’s identities using facial recognition software.
Individuals might come under suspicion through routine monitoring of messages sent on social media apps like WeChat, which does not use end-to-end encryption. Use of alternative messaging apps with encryption, such as WhatsApp, can also be a cause for detention.
The authorities label the camps as centres for “transformation-through-education”, but many simply call them “re-education camps”. Those sent to detention camps are not put on trial, have no access to lawyers or right to challenge the decision. Individuals could be left to languish in detention for months, as it is the authorities who decide when an individual has been “transformed”.
Kairat Samarkan was sent to a detention camp in October 2017, after he returned to the XUAR following a short visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Police told him he was detained because he was accused of having dual citizenship and had betrayed his country. He was released in February 2018.
Kairat told Amnesty that he was hooded, made to wear shackles on his arms and legs and was forced to stand in a fixed position for 12 hours when first detained. There were nearly 6,000 people held in the same camp, where they were forced to sing political songs and study speeches of the Chinese Communist Party. They could not talk to each other and were forced to chant “Long live Xi Jinping” before meals. Kairat told Amnesty that his treatment drove him to attempt suicide just before his 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. There have been reports of deaths inside the facilities, including suicides of those unable to bear the mistreatment.
The authorities justify the extreme measures as necessary for counter terrorism purposes and to ensure national security. However, measures to protect citizens from attacks must be necessary and proportionate and as narrow and targeted as possible to address a specific threat.
“The mass detention camps are places of brainwashing, torture and punishment. A simple act of messaging your family abroad can get you detained highlights how ludicrous, unjustified and completely arbitrary the Chinese authorities’ actions are,” said Nicholas Bequelin.
Families torn apart
For months, relatives of the missing kept their anguish to themselves. They hoped the loss of contact with loved ones back home would be temporary. They feared making things worse if they sought outside help. Now, with no clear end in sight for their torment, more and more are willing to speak up.
Bota Kussaiyn, an ethnic Kazakh student studying at Moscow State University, last spoke with her father, Kussaiyn Sagymbai, over WeChat in November 2017. Originally from the XUAR, their family had re-settled in Kazakhstan in 2013.
Bota’s father had returned to China in late 2017 to see a doctor, but the authorities confiscated his passport after he arrived in the XUAR. Bota subsequently learnt from relatives there that her father had been sent to a “re-education camp”.
Her relatives in the XUAR were so afraid that further contact might put them under suspicion that they stopped communicating with her after that.
Bota told Amnesty: “My father is an ordinary citizen. We were a happy family before he was detained. We laughed together. We can’t laugh any more, and we can’t sleep at night. We live in fear every day. It has done great harm to my mother. We don’t know where he is. We don’t even know if he’s still alive. I want to see my father again.”
Many relatives and friends abroad report feelings of guilt, because it seems to be precisely these overseas connections that in many cases are causing their loved ones in the XUAR to fall under suspicion. The authorities accuse them of having ties to outside groups the Chinese government alleges promote “extremist” religious views or plot “terrorist activity”.
To avoid arousing such suspicion, Uighurs, Kazakhs and others inside the XUAR have reportedly been cutting all ties with friends and family living outside China. They warn acquaintances not to call and delete outside contacts from social media applications. Unable to get reliable information from home, many living abroad inevitably fear the worst.
When parents are taken away, children are left to suffer, with many families experiencing economic hardship. Older children might be sent to state-run vocational training centres, while younger ones can wind up in one of the massive “welfare centres” that have been constructed since 2017.
Adding to the pressure on those living abroad are aggressive efforts by Chinese security officials to recruit spies in overseas communities. Those targeted are reportedly threatened that if they do not cooperate, family members back in the XUAR will be detained. If they do cooperate, on the other hand, they receive promises that their loved ones will be treated leniently.
Not knowing who among the community living overseas might be reporting back to security authorities in China plants seeds of suspicion and distrust that take root and further feed the sense of isolation and fear.
“The Chinese authorities’ systematic campaign of suppression is having a devastating toll on the lives of millions of people. It’s time the authorities come clean about the camps and let families be reunited,” said Nicholas Bequelin.