Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are temporarily releasing Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities from political “re-education camps” who have demonstrated “good behavior” in detention, according to sources.
Zulfukar Ali, a Uyghur activist living in exile in Turkey, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that he had suddenly been contacted via video chat by a relative in the XUAR’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture who was detained in one of the camps, after being cut off from communication with his family members for more than two years.
“She told me that she was released to her home for three days,” Ali said of his relative, who is among more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas that are believed to have been held in the XUAR’s network of camps since April 2017.
“She said there were 20 people from each cell released and that they were taken from the camp in handcuffs with a black hood over their heads, which were only removed outside of their homes as they prepared to go inside.”
Ali said his relative—who displayed what he described as “scars” from beatings in detention—suggested she may have been allowed to return home because authorities “received notice of a foreign group visit,” noting that she had previously worked for the government and “understands under what circumstances people would be released.”
The following day, he was unable to speak with her and said he believes she was returned to the camp within 24 hours of her release.
An official who answered the phone at the Kashgar prefectural government office confirmed that authorities had temporarily released at least three detainees from camps in his region since Feb. 12.
“There were some who were only released for a day to see their families, but there isn't anyone who was permanently freed,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They were escorted to their homes and left with their families for 24 hours, before being taken back. They call this a ‘24-hour home visit.’ That is all we know, we don't know anything else.”
The official said one of those temporarily released was named “Nurmemet,” and suggested that one of the other two had worked for the Kashgar Agricultural Bureau, without providing further details about the detainees.
He said that the release was the first of its kind, but was unable to confirm whether it had anything to do with a “foreign group visit.”
“I didn't hear anything about an inspection team, only that people who have behaved correctly were given permission to see their family,” the official said.
“They are arranging these home visits throughout the [XUAR],” he added.
RFA spoke with two staffers at the Kashgar Agricultural Bureau, one of which confirmed that a colleague by the name of Arkin Qadir had recently been released from a re-education camp, and the other who said he had already been sent back to the camp, when asked where he was.
RFA also contacted a security guard at a hotel in Kashgar city who said he had not heard of a foreign inspection team being sent to the area to investigate the re-education camps, although it is common practice for authorities to notify local businesses ahead of time and guide employees on what they can and cannot discuss about sensitive matters with visitors from abroad.
“We were given instructions [on what we can discuss], but we haven’t received any information regarding a foreign inspection team,” the security guard said, adding that staff are regularly told how to interact with foreigners.
The security guard said he was unaware of any Uyghurs or other Muslim minority detainees being released from area re-education camps.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
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.
China has been inviting media groups and representatives from friendly nations to the XUAR, including from Indonesia and Malaysia earlier this week, to highly orchestrated tours of the XUAR as part of a bid to push back against international criticism of the camp system and Beijing's policies in the region.
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 of 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 RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.