Uyghur Camp Inmates Detail ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ in New Amnesty Report

Former detainees describe tiger chair restraints, beatings, and neglect in Xinjiang detention facilities.
By Roseanne Gerin
Uyghur Camp Inmates Detail ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ in New Amnesty Report US Senator Tim Kaine presides over a hearing on the atrocities comitted against Muslim Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonous Region, in Washington, June 10, 2021.
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committe hearing video screenshot

More than 50 former inmates of detention camps in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) — many of whom have never spoken publicly — have presented new testimony of “crimes against humanity,” Amnesty International said in a report published Thursday.

The London-based right group’s report shows how predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the XUAR have been subjected to torture and maltreatment while arbitrarily detained in prison-like internment, while millions of others have faced harsh surveillance and persecution because of their religion, language, and culture.

The 160-page report titled “Like We Were Enemies in a War’: China’s Mass Internment, Torture, and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang” documents how since early 2017 China has conducted widespread, systematic abuses against Muslims living in the XUAR under the pretense of a campaign against “terrorism.”

“Amnesty International believes the evidence it has collected provides a factual basis for the conclusion that the Chinese government has committed at least the following crimes against humanity: imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; torture; and persecution,” the report said.

Amnesty’s findings are based on interviews with former internees from October 2019 to the present, including ex-detainees who have never spoken to the media and other sources, including news reports, analysis of satellite imagery and data, and leaked government documents.

“The Chinese authorities have created a dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general, said in a statement.

“It should shock the conscience of humanity that massive numbers of people have been subjected to brainwashing, torture and other degrading treatment in internment camps, while millions more live in fear amid a vast surveillance apparatus,” she said.

A former detention facility inmate with the pseudonym Madi told Amnesty how he was beaten after arriving at a camp when he resisted a strip-search by guards.

“When I said I wouldn’t take off my underwear they beat me with an electric baton,” he said. “They beat me and I was electrocuted...When I came to my senses, they took off my clothes, they searched me, made me bend down, tied my hands behind my neck. It was very painful.”

A woman with the pseudonym Zhaina told Amnesty that women in her cell were punished by being made to stand still and look at the wall for hours and forced to watch others confined to metal tiger chairs in which detainees were locked for hours, including one who urinated herself while sitting in a chair for 32 hours.

“A female guard used to take us [to another room in camp] to show us how people were suffering,” she said. “It was in a room [that was originally intended] to keep animals, surrounded by bars. It was dirty… It was like a pound. It was made of bricks with an iron roof… I saw them sitting in the chair.”

A former camp inmate given the pseudonym Timur said he witnessed two of his cellmates immobilized in tiger chairs for extended periods as he and others were forced to watch and forbidden to provide any assistance.

“They used to make people sit in tiger chairs for hours,” he said of the guards in the camp. “They used to make the person sit in the tiger chair in front of us. They used to bring the chair into our cell if someone was not obedient… It happened twice. The first guy [was immobilized] for 24 hours. He was not allowed to eat or drink. He was taken to the toilet twice…the second guy was made to sit for six hours.

Former detainee Aibek told Amnesty he saw immobilized people tortured through the use of restraints and exposure to the cold while walking from his cell to the medical clinic in the camp.

“I saw how they torture [other people],” he said. “One time they set a young lady in a metal chair outside [in January] in thin clothes… [I saw] seven Uyghur men handcuffed [outside] to metal bars and chains on their feet without shoes.”

‘End the systemic attacks’

China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs in a network of detention camps since 2017. Beijing has said that the camps are vocational training centers or re-education centers and has denied widespread and documented allegations that it has subjected Muslims living in the XUAR to severe rights abuses. Smaller numbers of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, fellow Turkic speaking people, have also been incarcerated in the camp system.

Amnesty notes that Chinese government data shows significant increases in prison sentences and satellite imagery shows significant new prison construction in Xinjiang since 2017.

Former detainees are placed under electronic and in-person surveillance for months after being released from a camp, including “homestays” by government cadres who monitor them and report what they consider to be suspicious behavior, Amnesty says. While many remain in detention in the camps, others have received lengthy jail sentences or are subject to forced or coerced labor.

The human rights group called on China to shut down the camps.

“China must immediately dismantle the internment camps, release the people arbitrarily detained in them and in prisons, and end the systematic attacks against Muslims in Xinjiang,” said Callamard.

“The international community must speak out and act in unison to end this abomination, once and for all. The UN must establish and urgently dispatch an independent investigative mechanism with a view to bringing those suspected of responsibility for crimes under international law to account.”

The report comes three days after a “Uyghur Tribunal” convened in London to investigate whether China’s treatment of its ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims constitutes genocide.

More than 30 witnesses and experts provided testimony during the four-day opening session of the tribunal, which will reconvene in September and aims to issue a ruling by the end of the year.

The tribunal has no state backing and any judgments are nonbinding on any government.

Senate hearing discusses atrocities

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the atrocities in Xinjiang with expert policy recommendations for ending the human rights crisis in the XUAR.

“The matter of the treatment of Uyghurs in China has to be highlighted and exclamation-pointed to the world,” said presiding Senator Tim Kaine at the beginning of the session.

“Nowhere is the assault on individual freedom and human rights more comprehensive and more atrocious than against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province,” he said.

Senator Edward Markey, who also presided over the hearing, said that “the genocide in Xinjiang is a stain on the global conscience.”

“It’s hard to fathom that how in the 21st century such unspeakable crimes can occur,” he said.

During the hearing, Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, discussed his latest report issued Monday on China’s policy to reduce the natural population growth in southern XUAR.

The report indicates that Chinese policies could result in a large drop in births among Uyghurs of 2.6 million to 4.5 million by 2040, based on population projections by Chinese researchers.

“Beijing’s strategy in Xinjiang is not one of population destruction, but population control,” he said. “It’s a mass atrocity without mass slaughter, one with human rights violations of historic proportions, but leading to a loss of millions of lives potentially.”

Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, warned that the Chinese Communist Party has been able to control the narrative “surrounding their genocidal crimes” in the XUAR by keeping out journalists, which has led to a “high number of genocide denialists, who target survivors and activists, attempting to undermine their stories, and even threatening their lives.”

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, called for the “urgent” need for the U.S. Senate to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and the SPEECH Act of 2021. The acts would prevent companies from relying on supply chains involving Uyghur forced labor and from providing technological equipment used in the surveillance and monitoring of Uyghurs in the XUAR.

“The former will help stem the flow of goods made with forced labor to the U.S.; the latter to more carefully scrutinize exports that can be used for serious human rights abuses,” Richardson said.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is a bill in the U.S. Congress that would change U.S. policy on the XUAR with the goal of ensuring that American entities are not funding forced labor among ethnic minorities in the region. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a 406-3 vote in September 2020.

Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, also urged U.S. lawmakers to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

“This hearing showed that American elected leaders are extremely well-informed about the Uyghur genocide and the long arm of Chinese government repression, including harassment and retaliation against Uyghurs around the world, and even in the U.S.,” he said in a statement issued after the hearing. “The Senate must pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act without delay.”


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