Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State

At thousands of checkpoints and convenience stations in Xinjiang, police have collected DNA samples, voice recordings, fingerprints, and iris and facial scans of residents. Throughout the region, people’s homes are marked with QR codes linked to information about each resident. Mandatory smartphone apps monitor citizens’ movements and private messages. Chinese tech companies including Huawei have tested facial-recognition software capable of identifying Uighurs in a crowd. (Huawei claims that a third-party company used its services for testing.)

After years of first denying the facilities’ existence, then claiming that they had closed, Chinese officials now say the camps are “vocational education and training centers,” necessary to rooting out “extreme thoughts” and no different from correctional facilities in the United States or deradicalization centers in France. “Respecting and protecting human rights in accordance with China’s Constitution and law is strictly observed in these centers,” the Chinese consulate in New York said, in response to a request for comment. “The trainees who received education and training for deradicalization purposes have graduated, found stable jobs with the help of the government, and are living a happy life.”

In the spring of 2018, after Koksebek and Seituly were released, Otarbai was transferred back to the former retirement home where all three Kazakh men were initially detained. That fall, in an improvised courtroom inside the camp, Otarbai was convicted and sentenced in a pro-forma process that only vaguely resembled a trial. There was no defense; a representative from his old neighborhood administration read out a verdict stating that he “has been confirmed to have used WhatsApp, and is thus given a seven-year sentence.”

During this time, the camp was growing. According to an analysis of satellite photos, the facility had expanded fivefold since Otarbai was first held there, in 2017, and construction had begun on an approximately twenty-thousand-square-foot factory and warehouse. In November, Otarbai “graduated” from his studies and joined other detainees on the factory floor producing children’s clothing.

A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found more than a hundred facilities in Xinjiang where factories abutted suspected camps or prisons. A government program called Xinjiang Aid has also transferred more than a hundred and fifty thousand “surplus rural workers” to jobs outside the region since 2018. Chinese officials claim that the laborers are migrant volunteers, not detainees. But one notice described the conditions under which the migrant laborers live and work as “concentrated, closed-off, military-style management.” A report issued by members of the U.S. Congress in March, 2020, said that top American corporations, including Nike and Coca-Cola, are suspected of benefitting from forced labor in factories in Xinjiang. Both companies maintain that they perform regular compliance inspections to insure they are not making use of forced-labor practices.

Official claims that camp populations are declining may therefore be accurate, as detainees are increasingly sent to work in factories and on farms, or else sentenced and transferred to conventional prisons. At least three hundred thousand more people have received formal prison sentences between 2017 and 2019 than in typical previous years, according to an analysis of government documents, public sentencing records, and testimonies conducted by Gene Bunin, the founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database. In 2018, family members of some detainees in Xinjiang learned that their relatives were now serving long prison sentences for offenses such as “propagating extremism” (fourteen years) and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (nineteen years).

Firsthand descriptions of criminal trials in Xinjiang are rare. Amirken, the Kazakh hairdresser who married into a prominent religious family, told me that she attended the trial of her brother-in-law, Nurlan Pioner, an imam in the Altai Mountains near Mongolia. For years, Pioner had avoided trouble with authorities. He received training and a certificate from the state-run madrasa in Ürümqi and worked closely with Party officials, who approved his Friday-night sermons and his scholarly work translating religious books from Arabic into Kazakh. Nevertheless, Pioner was detained in June, 2017, and put on trial a year later. His family received a twenty-three-page prewritten judgment of his case. When the proceedings began, two guards with rifles carried Pioner into the courtroom in a chair. The accused was wearing a blue prison uniform that was soiled with urine. He appeared malnourished and was unable to walk; he spoke incoherently. The judge read the prewritten verdict. It said that Pioner was arrested for “gathering a crowd to instigate social disorder; taking advantage of extremism to hold back law enforcement; [and] illegally obtaining materials which propagate [an] extremist ideology.” He was sentenced to seventeen years in prison. According to researchers, Pioner’s case reflected the criminalization of religious practice in Xinjiang.

A month after his conviction, Pioner was temporarily released into medical house arrest. While detained, he had developed upper- and lower-limb amyotrophy and lost the ability to control his body. “He had become almost a vegetable,” Amirken recalled. “He couldn’t hear. He couldn’t talk.” Fearing that they, too, would be arrested, Amirken and her family fled to Kazakhstan in January, 2018. Ten months after they left, law-enforcement officers returned Pioner to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence.

In December, 2018, just a few months after his sentencing, Otarbai was abruptly released into a halfway home for recently freed detainees. The reason remains a mystery, but his former cellmates Koksebek and Seituly, from the relative safety of Kazakhstan, had made statements calling for his release. Six months later, after more than two years away from his family, Otarbai crossed into Kazakhstan. His wife and two children, aged nine and four, were waiting at the house he had built for them, in a small town outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. His younger son, Nurtal, didn’t recognize him when he came home. “Who’s this uncle come to our house?” the boy asked his mother.

In 2018 and 2019, I made several trips to Kazakhstan to meet people who had witnessed the rise of Xinjiang’s security state. I spoke with a dozen former detainees of camps; I met dozens more whose family members had been detained, imprisoned, or disappeared. In December of 2019, before COVID-19 restricted travel, I met Otarbai in a threadbare hotel room in a small, snow-covered town an hour outside Almaty.

Today, Otarbai suffers from chronic pain and memory loss, which he attributes to his long imprisonment and the torture he suffered. Yet he was the funniest and most lighthearted of the former detainees that I met. While imprisoned, he decided that, if he were ever released, he would raise his children in an atmosphere of total freedom. “Almost all the doors of the furniture are broken now,” he told me. “But I never scold them, because I really understand what prison is. I want them to be free of everything.”

Otarbai recalled that, when he was in the camp, inmates would sing songs to cheer one another up. He became well known for his singing voice, and his teachers would sometimes ask him to serenade his fellow-students. “You aren’t allowed to sing in Kazakh or Uighur, but you can in Mongolian, Chinese, or English,” he explained. “I have a favorite song by a Mongolian singer. The song goes, ‘I grew up on a vast grassland, I grew up freely, on the land of my ancestors, and I was nurtured by it.’ When I would sing these kinds of songs, my classmates would feel happy.” Then, with a voice as bright as a mountain stream, he sang it.

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