‘These Are Places
That The Chinese Government
Uses to Oppress us’
A Uyghur held for ‘extremism’ details his detention in a prison and a political ‘re-education camp.’
Abdusalam Muhemet, a former business owner in his 40s from Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) city in the XUAR’s Hotan prefecture, was extra-judicially incarcerated for six months beginning in late 2016 because his family members were known to be practicing Muslims, although he was not outwardly religious. After he was released from prison, he was sent to a political “re-education camp” for 70 days, where he was subjected to daily propaganda sessions and forced to sing songs praising China’s ruling Communist Party. Muhemet recently spoke to RFA’s Uyghur Service from exile in Turkey about what he endured during his detention.
RFA: Tell us about when you were first imprisoned.
Abdusalam Muhemet: When the Chinese government started “striking hard,” I became a target of these strikes because I am a believer of Allah. I love my faith. I love my people and my homeland. I am someone who refused to accept Chinese authority. Even if I didn’t take any action [on my beliefs], the Chinese authorities knew my thoughts because they had informants working for them … They issued an arrest warrant for me in 2016.
Since I’m innocent, I thought I would turn myself in. I had nothing to hide and I didn’t have anywhere to go. My identification card and passport were all traceable, and I had no place to go. And, in reality, I’m innocent … I told the authorities [back home] that I had relocated to [XUAR capital] Urumqi to work and study English, and that I had been looking to open a restaurant, but was willing to talk to them about why they were looking for me. They said, “You did very well by calling and turning yourself in. Wait for us there.” I waited for two days … Two of them came to Urumqi. They asked me to go to a specific address, and I went without any worries because I was innocent. Then, they took me to the National Security Bureau for interrogation.
As soon as we got there, they took me somewhere to draw blood. Afterwards, they shaved my hair and ripped my clothes off, because we couldn’t wear any garments with buttons, and I was left with only my long underpants and a shirt. We entered the gate of the detention center, which was surrounded with cameras. The guards were all armed. It opened into a square, and on the right side National Security Bureau staff members were interrogating people and beating them. On the left side was a holding cell, where they would keep people they planned to interrogate. After they interrogate the inmates, they would send them off to the actual prison. Some would stay there for four to five days, while others would be kept there for 10 or 15 days until they were charged with something like “slander.”
We were in a small, three-by-three meter room with a thin mat on the floor. Fifteen of us slept on it. Fifteen people. If we lay on our backs, we wouldn’t fit. Fifteen people with manacles on our feet. Two people using one blanket and lying back-to-back.
There was no toilet there, just a plastic bucket that we bought … Every 24-48 hours, it would be dumped out … Two people would use a blanket to cover us when we used the bucket in the cell. After we finished, the smell would take over the entire room … Two people were manacled to one another by their ankles … The other person whose leg was shackled to mine had to stand next to me while I did my business.
There was an old, hard chair which we had to sit in all day while a camera monitored us. Our buttocks hurt and we felt a stinging pain from sitting still, but if we ever moved—even slightly—they would yell and shout at us over the loudspeaker using very nasty words, and even sometimes come in and immediately begin beating us.
We had to suffer through all of this while we were only at the investigation stage—this was the situation before any of us were formally charged.
In the morning, they would give us a small piece of bread with vegetable soup. The vegetables were not washed before cooking. I think the cook they picked was the worst person because the food was terrible. You could see the worms floating in the soup. It was tasteless. If he had salt, he wouldn’t use it. The soup they gave us was just vegetables boiled in water … For lunch, we would get rice soup. Sometimes it was uncooked, sometimes it was burned. No one cared about the condition of our food. They wanted us to die there. For supper, we ate two steamed buns and tea.
RFA: Was there anyone who got sick while you were there?
Muhemet: Yes, there were many people who got sick … If someone was about to die … then they would drag him out to take him to the hospital … I have hypertension. It worsened after I was incarcerated there and I suffered a lot with my high blood pressure. I got very sick either the fifth or sixth day after I arrived … For six or seven days, I was unconscious … Even if I had died there, no one would have cared. No one would give me any medicine ... At that time, I was so sick that some of our [Uyghur] brothers who were imprisoned there would recite their will to the others in case they died, because they worried they might end up in a similar condition as me … After more than a dozen days, with Allah’s blessings, I got well without taking any medicine. For me, it wasn’t so much pain, just being unconscious for all those days. Others who were sick with intense pain and suffering just got yelled at by the guards for moaning, instead of getting medical treatment … Even though the guards were Uyghurs, their hearts were like those of the Chinese, as they had no consideration toward members of their ethnicity. The authorities seem to have specifically chose Uyghur guards with no sympathy for other Uyghurs.
RFA: Did they ever physically abuse you while you were there, during the interrogation or while you were sick?
Muhemet: When they took the inmates out to use the toilet, sometimes one of them would cover the camera by blocking the lens and the other one would kick and hit the inmate for no reason … One inmate was hit 80 times with a wooden club … They accused him of reciting the Quran and took him out and beat him. The Chinese guard told a Uyghur [guard] to hit him another 30 times in a place that the camera couldn’t see. The inmate was made to lay on his stomach and was hit. He couldn’t get up after that. For seven or eight days, he was moaning from the pain, and his back was covered with black bruises.
The beatings happened every day. Some days, Chinese officials on duty would come in drunk. They would take inmates from one or two cells and start to beat them, just for the fun of it. They would make the inmates scream in pain. The acoustics in the hallways made the sound of the screams unbearable. They just did it to amuse themselves.
RFA: What was your daily routine like?
Muhemet: We would stand in formation when we first get up, then we would shout for an hour, praising the Chinese government and singing Chinese songs, such as “If There Is No Communist Party, There Is No Pleasure For Us.” Then, they would make us sit down, stand up, and then sit down again. Then, they yell at us and beat us for failing to follow instructions. That was how our time was spent each day. During meals, we sat down for about 15 minutes. All of this happened inside the prison cell.
From early morning until late at night, we sang for 15-20 minutes every hour, and the rest of the time we just sat still. We sat in three rows, looking at the back of the neck of the person sitting in front us … We never felt rested or got enough sleep at night, as our legs were shackled. We couldn’t roll over at night and couldn’t move.
RFA: During the six months you were imprisoned [from November 2016 to May 2017], did your family ever visit you, or bring money or other comfort items for you?
Muhemet: No, that was impossible. The scariest thing was that if we died in there, no one from our families would have known what happened. Many times, parents heard their children had died [in the prison], but later they would be released, or vice versa. So many people were getting sick.
People are living in fear. There isn’t any family left that did not go through some sort of suffering because of the Chinese government’s brutalities.
RFA: You said that you sing Chinese songs. What kind of songs do you sing? Do they teach you the Chinese language as well?
Muhemet: Yes, they taught them in Chinese … They printed the Uyghur phonetic pronunciation of the Chinese … [if someone couldn’t learn it] the person would get beaten up and, if he later still couldn’t recite it, the whole prison cell would be punished. [The guards] don’t come alone to reprimand the 15 people in the room, but five or six of them come in together with clubs and hit everyone very hard for not being able to recite the songs … They gave us two days to learn.
Their purpose was to humiliate and torture us. They made us sing before every meal. There are two songs in Chinese. Before they fed us, they would make us sing both of them. If we didn’t sing well, they would make us sing again until they were satisfied. They told us we couldn’t eat until we sang well.
RFA: Where did they take you after you left the prison?
Muhemet: A re-education camp is a place where they humiliate the faith, identity and dignity of Uyghur Muslims through persecution. I went there … There were guards and cameras at the front gate. Six or seven armed soldiers were scattered around holding wooden clubs.
Everything they taught us was to denounce our religion. They would say that our religion is not what we thought it was … The educators came from different agencies, such as the Ministry of Education, the Public Security Bureau, and etcetera … Their singular aim was to make us condemn religious radicalism and express appreciation for the government’s “goodness.” They would make us swear oaths and tell our thoughts, as well as other things … There were fifty people in our class … Everyday, there would be different kinds of people coming to teach.
We purchased everything we needed in there, such as blankets. They collected 1,200 yuan (U.S. $175) as our “fee” for three months. They spent 500-600 yuan (U.S. $73-87) of it, and the rest they used for the stuff that we needed. They even charged us for the bread we ate.
We were forced to sit and forced to read. If we didn’t read correctly, then the time for reading was extended. Beatings happened for no reason. If one does ablution, he gets beaten up. If one prays, he gets beaten up.
We got up early each morning to clean. After cleaning the whole square, we were forced to run as exercise. Even the elderly women and young girls were forced to run. If they couldn’t run, then they faced harassment. They forced everyone to run, which was very hard for some people. If we fell behind, then we were hit by clubs.
After running was breakfast, followed by classes until noon, and then lunch. Classes started again after lunch and would last until 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. We got two hours of rest after that … We could chat for a little bit and then, shortly after, we were forced to review the lessons. The classes were called: “71 Facts About Religious Radicalism,” “30 Indicators of Religious Extremism,” and so forth—all different types of things we were made to study and memorize.
RFA: They refer to these re-education camps as “schools.” Do you think it is fair to call them that?
Muhemet: No, not at all. The Chinese authorities are trying to justify their policies of suppression. They are trying to cover up their brutality. They are trying to make us say that we cheated the Chinese government [after the government helped to develop our region].
These are places that the Chinese government uses to oppress us. They are centers of ideological indoctrination … They are places where we are harassed psychologically and physically. “Education” basically means transformation. They are trying to make us accept that we are all Chinese … There is nothing related to education taking place there.