As many as 6,000 residents of the mostly Uyghur-populated township of Haniqatam in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have been held in political “re-education camps” for as long as two years, according to a local official.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in political re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
A staffer at Haniqatam township’s No. 7 village police station, in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Kuchar (Kuche) county, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that no one in his township’s 26 villages had been released from the camps in the nearly two years since authorities began detaining them.
“No one has been released from the re-education camps yet,” the staffer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The earliest people sent for re-education went a year-and-a-half to two years ago.”
“Approximately 5,000 to 6,000” residents of Haniqatam are currently held in the camps, he said, adding that “the ratio of residents sent to camps from each village is more or less the same” based on the population size of the area.
While it was not immediately clear what ratio of the local population authorities are targeting for Haniqatam’s re-education camps, official sources in other parts of the XUAR have told RFA that superiors ordered them to detain as many as 40 percent of the residents of their villages.
A village security chief in Haniqatam also recently confirmed that no detainees from the township had been released, the staffer said.
According to the staffer, the last major roundup of detainees in the township happened seven or eight months ago and the last detention in the township took place sometime in early July, after occurring on an almost weekly basis.
“There has been a very large number of people sent to the camps so far, and none have been released,” he said.
“The government’s policy is good—I think people who should be taken in for re-education are already there. The policy is getting good results.”
When asked if there were any plans to release those held in the camps, the staffer said local authorities had not been notified of any timetable.
“More than 100” residents of No. 7 village are currently held in political re-education, he said, adding that if anyone from his area was released, “I would know.”
The staffer said that authorities in Haniqatam are currently “transferring people from the No. 3 re-education camp to the No. 1 and No. 2 camps,” and said detainees could be getting divided up based on the severity of the reason for their detention.
He did not specify where the camps are located in the township, and admitted that he had never been to visit them himself.
An officer from the Haniqatam Police Department told RFA that the large number of detentions in the township had resulted in 12-hour shifts for him and his fellow officers.
“We are very busy and our workload is immense … because there is a long line of [relatives of camp detainees] asking for help, every day” said the officer, who also asked to remain unnamed.
“In some houses the husband has been taken away, while in others the wife has been taken away, and others still have had both detained, leaving the children behind, so the families come to inform us of their difficult situation and request our help.”
In addition to requests for assistance, family members of those detained must visit with the local authorities to obtain permission to visit their loved ones in the camps, he said, which has led to long lines at the police station “all of the time.”
An editorial in China’s official Global Times newspaper recently dismissed international coverage of the re-education camps in the XUAR, which it labeled “training institutes,” saying western media outlets were incorrectly labeling them as “detention” sites and “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”
Aside from the brief mention in the article, China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of political re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret. But local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said recently that as many as 500,000 to a million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, calling it ”the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, said the number “could be closer to 1.1 million, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.”
Last week, China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and a partner NGO, Equal Rights Initiative, said they had found through interviews with people in the region that up to 3 million residents of the XUAR, especially ethnic Uyghurs, may have been detained in the political re-education camps or forced to attend “education sessions” for “de-radicalization” as of June this year.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.