UPDATED at 11:05 A.M. EST on 2018-1-31
Omurbek Eli, a 41-year-old Kazakh national of mixed Uyghur and Kazakh heritage from northwest China’s Xinjiang region, was arrested by police in Xinjiang’s Turpan (in Chinese, Tulufan) prefecture in 2017 while visiting his parents and accused of “terrorist activities.” He was refused legal representation and imprisoned for more than seven months, despite never having been tried by a court of law. Eli was eventually freed with the assistance of the Kazakh government, although he believes his family members in Xinjiang remain under the scrutiny of local authorities.
Since April last year, ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in prisons and political re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic groups have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule. Chinese authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but activists estimate that up to 1 million people have been detained throughout the region.
Eli recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service from Almaty, Kazakhstan about his experience while detained by Chinese authorities:
RFA: When did you move to Kazakhstan?
Eli: Twelve years ago. I became a Kazakh citizen in 2008. Since then I have been traveling back and forth between [Kazakhstan and China] conducting business. I had been traveling to [the Xinjiang capital] Urumqi without any hassle, and I have never supported any [terrorist] organizations or groups. Since 2016, I have been working for a tourism company.
In March, I went to Urumqi to attend a conference … and then I went to Pichan (Shanshan) county to visit my family. The day after I arrived, the police came to the house saying they needed to speak to me … That was on March 26. They took me away without any documentation and imprisoned me without any evidence. I was kept in prison until Nov. 4, despite being a Kazakh citizen.
They said I was a suspect. They accused me of instigating terrorism, organizing terror activities, and covering up for terrorists. After arriving at the police station, they said, “There is a warrant for your arrest from the Karamay (Kelemayi) City Public Security Bureau” … even though they had no paperwork.
[The police] then handcuffed me, and placed a black hood over my head … I was taken to a hospital [in Pichan], where I had blood samples taken and was then given a full body examination, without my hood being removed. I was terrified that they might open me alive to remove my organs for sale.
After the procedure was complete, I was taken to a prison, where I had to change into a prison uniform before being placed in a cell among 13 … Uyghurs in shackles. I was kept there in shackles for eight days. On the first day, three men—one Uyghur and two Chinese—came from Karamay to question me. They said, “You assisted people with their visa applications, and took money from them claiming you could obtain passports for them.”
On April 3, I was taken to Karamay in handcuff and shackles … to the Jarenbulaq district police station and placed in a basement cell. The following day the police chief came to question me … I was not allowed to sleep for two days while I was continually questioned … [about] people who have left from Karamay to Turkey, Syria, and Europe, [saying I] have been assisting them ... I denied everything they accused me of. Then, on April 17, I was taken to the Karamay City Prison.
RFA: During that period, didn’t anyone visit you from the Kazakh Embassy?
Eli: Officials from the Kazakh Embassy … came on July 16 or 17—a diplomat from the embassy in Beijing and another diplomat based [in the consulate] in Urumqi … They advised me that the Chinese authorities had no right to torture me or force me to do heavy labor. They said that in prison, if I am ill, the authorities must provide medical treatment and also ensure I receive three meals a day.
The worst experience I endured in prison was that from the time I arrived, my ankles were shackled together and one ankle was chained to the bed. I spent every day and night until June 13 eating, sleeping and using the bathroom on the bed, with only an occasional bath. Afterwards, they used a meter of chain attached to my upper arm and ankle to keep me in a crouching position. It was agonizingly uncomfortable, and I had to live in that position until Nov. 4, when I left the prison.
In the end, diplomats from the consulate approached the Chinese authorities, saying I should be released into their authority if I was not going to be put on trial. The day the [Kazakh] diplomats visited me in July was the only time I was free of my shackles, for about an hour and a half. When I stood up, I couldn’t even maintain my balance—I staggered like a drunken man.
I knew I was innocent, but when I was locked up in prison, I lost all hope of surviving. On Nov. 4, I was asked to sign a document [admitting my guilt] as a condition of my bail. I thought, I must leave this hellhole, even if it is just to make contact with the outside world, and I signed the paper … I was then taken to a political re-education camp, where I remained for 20 days … The place was just like a prison, with guards at the gate.
RFA: How many people were sharing one room?
Eli: There were 23 in my room … There were cameras installed in the room, so we were under observation all the time. People who were kept there included teenagers, the middle-aged, and the elderly, and they were all from different backgrounds. There were government employees and teachers. I also saw a whole family—father, mother, and child. People who had completed their prison sentences were transferred there for re-education. The government employees were accused of being two-faced [a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty], which was the most convenient allegation to use.
They were 70-80 percent Uyghur, 20-30 percent Kazakh, and no other ethnic groups represented. According to what I heard, there were more than 1,000 young men in the camp, which was comprised of three different areas, designated A, B, and C. I was in area C, along with approximately 300 other men.
Sleeping hours were from 12:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. In the morning, all beds had to be made in military style. If one failed to do so, it was considered an ideological failure. We were made to attend a flag-raising ceremony at 7:30 a.m. each day. After that, we would wash and attend breakfast, where we first would have to sing a “red song” [in praise of the Communist Party].
Those who didn’t know the Chinese language well were taught Chinese. Other lessons included party laws and regulations, and red songs. All lessons were taught in Mandarin and there was an exam every week. Also, during lessons, instructors informed you of trials and sentences, and what offenses they were related to. This was to create fear—they used these examples to show people the heavy price they would pay if they did not follow the rules.
In between lessons, there were two hours of military training, marching, standing at attention, and following orders. From what I experienced, I now suffer from post-traumatic disorder and can no longer sleep properly. It damages one’s psychology … but the cadres told me that it takes at least one year to complete the re-education program.
RFA: What is the food like in the camp?
Eli: It was slightly better than the prison. Breakfast is rice gruel, while lunch and dinner include some meat. I think they sent me there because they wanted me to improve before returning. I had lost 40 kilograms (88 pounds) in prison.
[In the camp] if you fell ill, you would only receive treatment if you could pay for it … In the beginning they refused to provide me with medication, but I argued that it was their responsibility to provide me with treatment. As my blood pressure was very high, in the end I was given medicine for it.
Because there are armed police—some of whom carried wooden batons—if you showed any signs of disobedience they would come immediately and give you a severe beating. Therefore there was no choice but to obey every order.
At about 3:00 p.m. on Nov. 24, I heard my name being called and I was told to collect my belongings and get ready to go. I said to my roommates, “I might be taken to prison or freed, but take care of yourselves.” I was collected by a policeman who told me I would be released and returned to Kazakhstan … I was sent to my sister’s house and my family members were all in tears upon seeing me.
[The authorities] claim that through re-education they can liberate people’s minds to embrace the party and love the country, to obey all the party rules and regulations. It was very difficult for me to comprehend the fact that just being a Uyghur or Kazakh, you could be forced to undertake such a re-education regime in a prison. Seeing so many innocent people being treated in such a cruel way left me deeply saddened.
From my point of view, the authorities are hoping that re-educating these people will turn them into lambs, but on the contrary, they are planting the seeds of hatred and turning them into enemies. This is not just my view—the majority of the people in the camp feel the same way.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Edited by Joshua Lipes.
Correction: An earlier version of the story erroneously stated that Omurbek Eli was arrested in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture's Guma (Pishan) county.