Ethnic Uyghurs held in political “re-education camps” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being sent to prisons in Inner Mongolia and Sichuan province, officials have confirmed, adding to the growing list of locations detainees are being secretly transferred to.
In October last year, RFA’s Uyghur Service reported that authorities in the XUAR had begun covertly sending detainees to prisons in Heilongjiang province and other parts of China to address an “overflow” in overcrowded camps, where up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
And earlier this month, RFA spoke to officials in both Shaanxi province and neighboring Gansu province, who confirmed that Uyghur and other Muslim detainees from the XUAR had been sent to prisons there, although they were unable to provide specific numbers or dates for when they had been transferred.
The first report, which was based on statements by officials in both the XUAR and Heilongjiang, came in the same month that XUAR chairman Shohrat Zakir confirmed to China’s official Xinhua news agency the existence of the camps, calling them an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
As global condemnation over the camp network has grown, including calls for international observers to be allowed into the XUAR to investigate the situation there, reports suggest that authorities may be transferring detainees to other parts of China as part of a bid to obfuscate the scale of detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region.
RFA recently spoke to an official at the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Women’s Prison who said that detainees from the XUAR had been transferred to detention facilities in the region, but was unable to provide details without obtaining authorization from higher-level officials.
“There are two prisons that hold prisoners from Xinjiang—they are Wutaqi [in Hinggan (in Chinese, Xing'an) League’s Jalaid Banner] Prison and Salaqi [in Bogot (Baotou) city’s Tumd Right Banner] Prison,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
When asked how many Uyghur detainees are held in the prisons, the official said she could not disclose the number “because it is strictly confidential.”
The official said she had attended a meeting on transfers of detainees from the XUAR and that prior to the meeting attendees had received notices informing them that “we are not allowed to disclose any information regarding the transportation program.”
“Regardless of who is making inquiries, we cannot disclose any information unless we first obtain permission from our superiors,” she said.
An official at the Wutaqi Prison Command Center also told RFA that detainees from the XUAR are being held at Wutaqi, as well as a second one in Inner Mongolia, without specifying which one.
The official, who also declined to provide his name, said the detainees had been transferred to the two prisons as early as August last year, but was unsure whether they were being permanently relocated to the two prisons or being held there temporarily before they are transferred elsewhere.
“The prisoners are placed in two prisons, but [the officials at the facilities] don’t report to us about what is happening inside,” he said, before referring further inquiries to his supervisor.
“Regarding the number and the exact location of where they are held [in the prisons], I am unable to say,” he said.
The official said he was unsure of whether any detainees from the XUAR had been sent to Inner Mongolia recently, as information about the transfers is closely guarded.
“It is impossible for me to tell you how many prisoners have been transferred here this month or last month,” he said.
“The authorities are keeping all the information very secret—even we don’t know the details.”
Reports of detainee transfers from the XUAR to Inner Mongolia followed indications from officials in Sichuan province that prisons there are also accepting those held in XUAR re-education camps.
When asked which prisons XUAR detainees are being sent to in Sichuan, an official who answered the phone at the Sichuan Provincial Prison Administration told an RFA reporter that if he was calling to “visit them,” he would first have to make an official request.
One official at a prison believed to hold detainees from the XUAR in Yibin, a prefectural-level city in southeast Sichuan, told RFA that he “can’t discuss this issue over the phone” and suggested that the reporter file an official request for information.
But when asked about whether there had been any “ideological changes” to procedures at the facility, a fellow official who answered the phone said “these detentions are connected to terrorism, so I can’t answer such questions.”
“The transfer of Xinjiang detainees is a secretive part of our work at the prison, so I can’t tell you anything about it,” she added.
The statements from officials in Inner Mongolia and Sichuan province followed recent reports by Bitter Winter, a website launched by the Italian research center CESNUR that focuses on religious in China, which cited “informed sources” as confirming that detainees from the XUAR are being sent to prison facilities in other parts of the country.
The website, which routinely publishes photos and video documenting human rights violations submitted by citizen journalists from inside China, cited “CCP (Chinese Communist Party) insiders” as saying that more than 200 elderly Uyghurs in their sixties and seventies have been transferred to Ordos Prison in Inner Mongolia.
Bitter Winter also cited another source in Inner Mongolia who said one detainee was “beaten to death by the police” during his transfer, and expressed concern that the victim’s body “might already have been cremated.”
The website has previously said that authorities plan to disperse and detain “an estimated 500,000 Uyghur Muslims” throughout China, although this report could not be independently confirmed by RFA.
Call to action
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, told RFA he was “deeply troubled” by the reports of secret transfers of detainees from the XUAR to prisons in other parts of China, saying the move signalled a “very dark intent” by authorities.
“We simply cannot imagine what kind of treatment they are enduring at the hands of Chinese guards in these prisons, as this is shrouded in complete secrecy,” he said, adding that he was concerned for the well-being of the detainees.
Isa called on the international community to turn its attention to the transfers and demanded that the Chinese government disclose the total number of detainees who had been moved, as well as the location of the prisons they had been sent to.
“If the United Nations, U.S., EU, Turkey and other Muslims nations do not voice their concerns over this troubling development in a timely manner, I fear these innocent Uyghurs will perish in Chinese prisons without a trace,” he said.
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, recently called the situation in the XUAR "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.