Political re-education camp inmates in Korla (in Chinese, Kuerle) city, in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, endure cramped and squalid conditions in facilities where as many as 1,000 detainees are admitted every few days, according to a former official.
Since April last year, ethnic Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Sources recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that detention centers in Korla, the seat of central Xinjiang’s Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture, are “completely full” and have been turning detainees away because they could not accommodate them.
An employee at the central Korla Detention Center did not deny that the facility was overcrowded, but said he was not authorized to speak to people over the phone. The head and deputy chief of the center were unavailable for comment, he added, suggesting that inquiries be directed to the local Public Security Bureau.
An official with the Judicial Office in Korla’s Qosheriq township told RFA that while he didn’t have the exact number of inmates held at area re-education camps, “it’s been over a month since I heard that the centers were full,” adding that “people are taken to them, but can’t be admitted.”
He referred further inquiries to Korla’s Central Management Office, including questions about whether those who had been turned away were sent back to their home villages.
One thousand processed
But Naman Bawdun, the former head and Communist Party secretary of Bashawat village, in Korla’s Awat township, said that during the course of a few days last month he had joined around 1,000 people awaiting health checks at the city’s main hospital, ahead of being admitted to re-education camps.
According to Bawdun, despite his exemplary work as an official and loyalty to Beijing, his wife was detained on Oct. 9 for allegedly “allowing others to preach religion,” after workers were said to have delivered Islamic sermons at her carpet factory.
His daughter was removed from her position in the local police force a week later and Bawdun was held in police custody from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, before being brought to the hospital to undergo a medical examination as part of the intake process for entering a local re-education camp.
“I was taken for a medical examination at the hospital, where I saw around 500 people,” he said.
“I witnessed women who fainted, as well as many men over the age of 70—a number of whom were being looked after by their children. They were all there for medical check-ups before being taken to the detention centers.”
Bawdun said that at around 7:30 p.m.—more than four hours after arriving at the hospital—he completed his medical exam and was moved to a large hall outside of a re-education camp, where he and others waited to be processed and admitted.
“I saw 500-600 people waiting in a hall, many of whom were sleeping on the floor … before being assigned to a place in the re-education camp, one-by-one, after their medical reports had been checked,” he said.
“My turn came at 4:00 a.m. … but I was turned away as I had failed my health check. When I went back through the gate to the hall, again I saw people sleeping on the floor everywhere.”
When asked whether the people could have included visitors that were waiting to see their detained family members, Bawdun said it was “impossible.”
“No one is allowed to visit the center or its detainees, so everyone there was waiting to be imprisoned,” he said.
‘Stop bringing people’
Bawdun said that on the day he was brought to the re-education camp, a friend was also processed and admitted, although contacts from the Bayin’gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefectural Public Security Bureau and the detention center bailed him out three to four days later based on a health condition.
While inside, the friend said he had seen officials from the re-education camp tell the police to “stop bringing people … as it is already too full.”
He described cells that had previously held eight people now accommodating 14 inmates, who “were not allowed pillows” and “had to lay on their sides because there was not enough room to lay flat,” let alone space to turn over or stretch their legs.
Other acquaintances told Bawdun that they had seen “detainees walking barefoot,” and that inmates were “not allowed clothes with buttons or metal zippers,” belts, shoelaces, or “even underwear” in some cases, despite average low temperatures of around 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius) at night in December.
Bawdun was unable to confirm how many people are typically admitted to area re-education camps on a daily basis, but said those he saw during his visit consisted of detainees being processed “from Dec. 1-3,” and that the chief of the center he went to had ordered police to stop bringing them on the last of the three days.
Weeks later, he said, a police acquaintance had told him that detainees were being processed at the camps again, although he did not specify how many.
‘Like a brother’
The former village chief, who has been a party member since 2009 and was one of only four residents of Xinjiang to have ever received China’s “Ethnic Unity Prize,” said he remains unsure of exactly what he had done to earn a visit to a detention center last month.
“When I was the district secretary, my relationship with the Han Chinese was like that of a brother—when I had any celebrations I invited them, and they invited me, and when they leased land of 50 mu (8.2 acres) but extended it another 20 or 30 mu (3.3-5 acres), I turned a blind eye,” Bawdun said.
“But now I’m in a terrible situation. I used to be the person who led my cadres house to house, promoting ethnic unity, and educating people on government policies in order to prevent illegal activities. All of a sudden, I’m the person receiving this education, and the working group comes to see me almost daily, taking photographs of me to document their visit.”
Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016, he has initiated several harsh policies targeting religious freedom in the region.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.