The Ongoing Torture of Uyghur Muslims in China BY ELIZABETH BRATTON

September 9 2020

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual Assault, Forced Abortion, and Abuse

Since 403 pages of government documents detailing the detention of Uyghur muslims in China were leaked, the treatment of Chinese Uyghurs has become an international cause for concern.

Since 2017, reports have emerged detailing the use of detention camps for holding Uyghur muslims in China. The government claims they were established in response to terrorist threats, with the goal of establishing “ethnic unity”. Amnesty International has identified the camps as “places of brainwashing, torture and punishment”, while families have expressed concern about missing relatives. The “mass re-education drive” has reportedly led to the detainment of up to 1 million Uyghurs, although this figure has varied according to different sources.

In October 2019, Radio Free Asia received the first official confirmation of deaths within one of these facilities. At least 150 people had died over the course of six months in one Xinjiang internment camp. The deaths had occurred between June and December 2018, however the causes and circumstances were not specified.

Those imprisoned have allegedly endured food deprivation, electrocution, waterboarding, solitary confinement, beatings, and physical restraints, and among the deaths reported are a number of suicides. Mihrigul Tursun was arrested three times by Chinese officials, and told reporters about the death and torture she witnessed within the camps. When she was detained the first time, Tursun was separated from her three young children. When they were reunited, one had died, and the others had been operated on. During her imprisonment, Tursun allegedly shared a room with 68 other women, and witnessed 9 deaths. Tursun recalls how she had her head shaved, and “begged” guards to kill her, rather than continue torturing her. The government has refuted her claims, criticizing them as a “complete lie, told with ulterior motives”.

Dr Erkin Sidick is a Uyghur American, President of the Uyghur Projects Foundation, and senior advisor to the World Uyghur Congress. He believes that the total number of Uyghurs killed and detained by the Chinese authorities now exceeds 6 million, and that this is an example of “eradication”. Sidick also thinks mainstream media is two years behind in reporting the true death and detainee count: “For example, a lot of media says up to or more than one million Uyghur are detained, but they have been using this number since Human Rights Watch published an article on 15 January 2018. This was two-and-a-half years ago, but the international media still says up to or more than one million.” While it is impossible to verify his six million figure, numerous sources suggest that China is keeping much of their action in these detention centers under wraps.

A government official in Xinjiang notes that one county has witnessed an 80% decrease in Uyghur people. This particular area originally had a Uyghur population of 92,000, but only 20,000 are there now. Recent visitors to predominantly-Uyghur areas, such as Kashgar, Hotan, and Atsu, have said few members of the ethnic group remain. One study also found that natural population growth in Xinjiang’s minority regions fell by 84% between 2015 and 2018. As of 2019, two Xinjiang counties had planned to sterilize 34% of fertile rural women within the year.

The Guardian spoke to a woman who was reportedly “coerced” into teaching in Xinjiang’s internment camps. Qelbinur Sidik said she received alerts from local authorities, informing her that those between the age of 19-59 were to be fitted with intrauterine devices. Sidik herself had an IUD inserted at the age of 47. After the procedure, Sidik experienced heavy bleeding. She paid to have the device removed illegally, but was forced to be fitted with another after authorities found it missing. At the age of 50, she was forcibly sterilized.

The interviewee knew not to resist, having received a threatening text from the authorities. It read, “If anything happens, who will take responsibility for you? Do not gamble with your life, don’t even try. These things are not just about you. You have to think about your family members and your relatives around you. If you fight with us at your door and refuse to collaborate with us, you will go to the police station and sit on the metal chair!”

Sidik also claims she was sexually harassed by a Han Chinese man who was sent to live with her as part of the “Pair up and Become Family” programme, where predominantly-male Han Chinese “relatives” share their ideology with Uyghur families. Sidik does not seem to be an anomaly, as there have been reports of other Han Chinese men forcing female Uyghurs to share beds, and sometimes sexually assaulting them. An official recalled, “Normally one or two people sleep in one bed, and if the weather is cold, three people sleep together.” The cadre remains adamant that the Uyghur families are enthusiastic about this arrangement, and that there have been no complaints.

On Wednesday September 2, a Uyghur doctor told ITV News that she participated in forced abortions, contraception, sterilization, and womb removal at these interment camps. The woman, whose identity has not been revealed, is estimated to have carried out 500 to 600 operations on Uyghur women within 20 years. At the time, she was unaware of her wrongdoing, but now regrets her actions. She explains, “The clear intention was ethnic cleansing. We were asked to believe this was part of the Communist Party’s population control plan.” She recalls “herding” women on “tractors”, and believes many fetuses were aborted at full term. If the fetuses survived, it would be killed upon delivery - either with an injection, or by being placed in the garbage while still alive. The doctor is one of 50,000 Uyghurs to have fled to Turkey, and is now providing medical care to Uyghur women - many of whom don’t know what has happened to their bodies.

In August 2020, the BBC published video footage of life within a detainment camp. Officials claim that those inside are “students, not prisoners”, who have made the choice to lead a life free of extremism. One detainee explained that the program would “transform [his] thoughts”, while one man typed “I love the Communist Party of China” in a computer lesson. The Uyghurs share a room with up to 9 other detainees, are allocated one toilet between all of them, and are not allowed to pray. Many do not know when they will return home. Yet, one guard denies that the institute is a prison, because people can paint - amongst other activities. The reporters found graffiti that read “Oh my heart don’t break”, although did not show this, as to disguise the writer’s identity.

Over recent years, satellite footage has shown the construction of high-security facilities across the region of Xinjiang. These buildings have been accompanied with watchtowers, barbed wire, and high walls. However, once journalists arrived at this particular camp, the watchtowers had been removed. Additionally, empty yards had been “transformed into sports facilities.” Those inside have been neither charged nor tried for any crimes, although the Chinese government believes they can identify criminals before they commit any offenses. Zhang Zhisheng, a member of China’s Foreign Affairs Office, explains: “Some people, before they commit murder, already show they are capable of killing.”

The BBC also spoke to Rakhima Senbay, who now lives in Kazakhstan. She was allegedly detained for a year, as a result of having WhatsApp on her phone. She claims, “they put cuffs on my legs for a week”, and “once, I was struck with an electric baton.” Senbay recalls that prisoners were alerted ahead of visits, and were warned not to complain about their situation, or they would be sent to a “worse” facility.

An independent London tribunal is now investigating the mass incarceration, and deciding whether or not it constitutes as genocide. The tribunal is not government-backed, but rather organized by human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice QC. A number of hearings will take place next year.

On the 30th of August, Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended Xinjiang’s detention centers: “The rights of all trainees in the education and training program, though their minds have been encroached by terrorism and extremism, have been fully guaranteed.” He also claimed that all detainees have “graduated” from the counter-terrorism program, and have since found employment. For years, the government has accused Uyghurs of having separatist ideologies, due to their cultural traditions.

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Photo Credit: World Uyghur Congress