Ethnic Uyghurs held in political “re-education camps” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being sent to jail in Shandong province, prison officials have confirmed, as new details emerge of the system authorities use to transfer detainees out of the region.
In October last year, RFA’s Uyghur Service reported that authorities in the XUAR had begun covertly sending detainees to prisons in Heilongjiang province and other parts of China to address an “overflow” in overcrowded camps, where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
And last month, RFA spoke to officials in both Shaanxi province and neighboring Gansu province, who confirmed that Uyghur and other Muslim detainees from the XUAR had been sent to prisons there, although they were unable to provide specific numbers or dates for when they had been transferred.
As global condemnation over the camp network has grown, including calls for international observers to be allowed into the XUAR to investigate the situation there, reports suggest that authorities may be transferring detainees to other parts of China as part of a bid to obfuscate the scale of detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region.
After receiving information from an RFA listener who said that Uyghurs were also being relocated from the XUAR to detention centers in Shandong province on China’s eastern coast, RFA contacted a provincial prison official who confirmed the claim.
“There are many criminals who have been transferred from Xinjiang,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They have been placed in almost every prison [in Shandong],” he added, without providing additional details.
RFA was also able to contact an official on duty at the Provincial No. 1 Prison in Shandong’s Jinan city, who confirmed that at least four Uyghurs named “Asimujiang, Aili, Maimaiti and Yiliyar” had been transferred from the XUAR to the facility.
The official, who also requested to remain unnamed, said he was unable to provide an estimate for the number of Uyghurs held at the prison because “it is impossible for me to check,” without providing any further information.
While Beijing has acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, it has never officially admitted to transferring Uyghurs out of the region to other parts of the country.
Bitter Winter, a website launched by the Italian research center CESNUR that focuses on religious in China, last month cited “informed sources” as confirming for the first time that detainees from the XUAR are being sent to prison facilities in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.
The website previously cited sources as saying that prisons in Inner Mongolia have also accepted camp detainees from the XUAR, and that authorities plan to disperse and detain “an estimated 500,000 Uyghur Muslims” throughout China, although these reports could not be independently confirmed by RFA.
At the end of last year, a police officer in the XUAR’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture told RFA that he was aware of more than 2,000 Uyghur detainees who had been transferred from his area of the region to other parts of China.
“Those who are considered to be serious offenders or have received long-term prison sentences are being moved to Mainland China,” he said at the time, adding that the deputy commissioner of the prefectural Public Security Bureau had accompanied the detainees during their transfer.
“We tell [the detainees] that they will receive a better education as the facilities there are better and that there is no capacity to hold them in the XUAR because of the very high number of prisoners in the region.”
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.
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
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.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, earlier this month said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department's human rights and democracy bureau, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, last week said people "haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s" and called the internment of more than a million Uyghurs "one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today."
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.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.