Thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities are being held in re-education camps without contact with their families under a policy designed to counter extremism in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, local officials told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
The camps are now formally referred to as “Professional Education Schools,” after being called “Socialism Training Schools” and other names since their early 2017 inception as “Counter-extremism Training Schools,” the official said.
Analysts believe the camps are in operation throughout Xinjiang and contain detainees from the Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh communities – all Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities in China – under policies introduced by hardline Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.
“Five kinds of suspicious people have been detained and sent to education camps: people who throw away their mobile phone’s SIM card or did not use their mobile phone after registering it; former prisoners already released from prison; blacklisted people; ‘suspicious people’ who have some fundamental religious sentiment; and the people who have relatives abroad,” a female police officer from far western Xinjiang told RFA.
The officer from Ujme Township in Aktu (Aketao in Chinese) County, Kizilsu (Kezilesu) prefecture, said three education camps had been set up in Aktu County since March, with the largest camp lying between the border of Aktu and the city of Kashgar (Kashi).
“Around a thousand people are detained here and scheduled to receive political education,” she told RFA.
“The second camp is located behind Aktu county police bureau, where I guess around 600 people are detained. The third camp opened last month and holds more than 300 people. I think the total number of detained people reached 2,000, she added.
A second female Aktu police officer, from a police station in Pilal Township, estimated that “several thousand detainees” were undergoing re-education in camps in the county.
“I don’t know the exact number of detainees, because people on the black lists are divided into groups and sent to education camps on different days,” she told RFA. “Our police chief and political commissar know the exact numbers, but they did not inform us,” she added.
'Sent to camps indefinitely'
The second policewoman described the facilities as “closed schools” because authorities keep internees “detained day and night, and they continuously receive political and ideological education.”
“Nobody knows how long the ‘closed education’ lasts. First of all, the detainees are interrogated by the police, and then they are sent to different education camps,” she said.
“A few people are released after two or three months. But most detainees sent to camps indefinitely,” said the policewoman.
“Most of the former religious figures, including religious scholars and people who have some religious knowledge are detained and sent to education camps,” she added.
The first policewoman told RFA “many people have been involuntarily detained at the education camps now.”
“Because the number of detainees already exceeded the local authorities’ initial estimate, some of them were released and returned to their villages and arranged political training under the watch of local cadres,” she said.
The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch on Sunday called on the Chinese government to free the thousands of Xinjiang people placed in the camps since April 2017 and close them down.
“The Chinese authorities are holding people at these ‘political education’ centers not because they have committed any crimes, but because they deem them politically unreliable,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
“The government has provided no credible reasons for holding these people and should free them immediately,” she added, in an appeal published by Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch said the newly unfolding Xinjiang program called to mind the compulsory ‘re-education’ of hundreds of Tibetans following their return from a religious gathering called the Kalachakra Initiation in India in December 2012 , when Chen Quanguo was Tibet’s Communist Party secretary.
The Xinjiang political education detention centers -- where inmates who have not broken any laws are detained extrajudicially, indefinitely and without the knowledge of their families – run contrary to China’s constitution and violate international human rights law, Human Rights Watch noted.
China’s ruling Communist Party blames some Uyghurs for a string of violent attacks and clashes in China in recent years, but critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the ethnic group, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
Reported and translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Paul Eckert.