Former Xinjiang Internment Camp Detainee Honored With ‘Hero of the Year’ Award

Gulbahar Jelilova was recognized for her work drawing attention to mass incarceration in the region.
Former Xinjiang Internment Camp Detainee Honored With ‘Hero of the Year’ Award Gulbahar Jelilova in an undated photo.
Justice for All

UPDATED at 9:55 A.M. EDT on 04-05-2023

U.S.-based Justice for All has honored Uyghur former internment camp detainee Gulbahar Jelilova as one of four “Heroes of the Year” for her work drawing international attention to policies of mass incarceration in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

In a statement posted to its website on April 3, the Muslim advocacy group lauded Jelilova, a Uyghur businesswoman from Kazakhstan, as “Uyghur Advocate of the Year 2021” for detailing to the media the abuses she and others experienced in the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps.

Authorities in the region are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the camp system since early 2017. While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.

But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets indicate 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.

In a recent interview with RFA, Jelilova expressed her appreciation to Justice for All for honoring her with the third award she has received for her work and denounced Beijing’s rule in the XUAR, where the U.S. government and the parliaments of other Western nations say China’s repressive policies amount to genocide against the Uyghur people.

“My crime, my only crime, is that I am Uyghur, I am a Muslim,” Jelilova said.

“They said I was a terrorist, that I aided terrorists, and they gave me the death penalty, and locked me up underground and in dark cells. I stayed there for one year, three months, and 10 days before getting out,” she said.

“With Allah’s strength, with Allah’s mercy, on behalf of my cellmates in the camps, I have been telling my story to the entire world.”

Revealing life inside the camps

Jelilova was detained on accusations of “aiding terrorism” while on a business trip to the XUAR capital Urumqi and put into three different camps over a period of 15 months beginning in May 2017. She finally returned to Kazakhstan in September 2018, as a direct result of tireless advocacy by her two children in Kazakhstan, who sought diplomatic assistance from the Kazakh government.

Jelilova’s testimony has since revealed the nature of atrocities inside the camps, including torture and the deaths of innocent people. She told RFA in 2019 that Muslim detainees were regularly served pork in the camps, although guards never told them it was in the food, and that in several cases, detainees who separated the pork out of their meals were placed in solitary confinement as punishment.

While Jelilova initially spent a period of time in Kazakhstan after leaving China, she eventually fled her home country for Turkey because she felt that Beijing’s influence over Nur-Sultan made it unsafe for her to speak out about abuses in the XUAR. After spending a period in Turkey, she moved to France in October 2020 and is now seeking asylum.

In February, she and several other women who have given testimony about their experiences as former detainees in the XUAR’s camp system were the target of a smear campaign by Chinese state media as part of a bid to undermine their credibility.

Jelilova was among four people recognized by Justice for All as Heroes of the Year. Her fellow recipients include James McGovern, a U.S. Representative for Massachusetts who has long advocated for the human rights of Uyghurs; former U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, for his support of the Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar; and Ather Zia, a Kashmiri anthropologist and professor, for her June 2019 book titled “Resisting Disappearances: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir.”

Condemning Uyghur genocide

Amid rising international attention to the plight of the Uyghurs by U.S. lawmakers, House Foreign Affairs Committee Lead Republican Michael McCaul and Chairman Gregory W. Meeks introduced a resolution Wednesday condemning “the genocide being committed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the direction and control of the Chinese Communist Party, against the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups.”

The resolution calls on U.S. President Biden to refer the abuses to the United Nations for investigation under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, seek multilateral sanctions against the PRC at the U.N. Security Council, and “take all possible actions to bring the genocide to an end.”

Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly state that Gulbahar Jelilova was a Kazakh national.


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