China’s far western region of Xinjiang has become a “dystopian hellscape” where Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities face systematic and state-organised “mass internment and torture amounting to crimes against humanity”, Amnesty International said in a new report, citing dozens of eyewitness accounts from former detainees.
In a study published on Thursday, Amnesty said the minority groups had been forced to abandon their religious traditions, language and culture, and subjected to mass surveillance, supporting previous allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing committed within a network of hundreds of detention centres.
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More than 50 former camp detainees shared new testimony with Amnesty, providing a detailed inside account of the conditions and treatment of Uighurs and other groups in the internment camps sanctioned by Chinese authorities since 2017, Amnesty said.
“The Chinese authorities have created a dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general and a former UN investigator on human rights.
“Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities face crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations that threaten to erase their religious and cultural identities.
“It should shock the conscience of humanity that massive numbers of people have been subjected to brainwashing, torture and other degrading treatment in internment camps, while millions more live in fear amid a vast surveillance apparatus.”
Torture and other ill-treatment are systematic in the camps and every aspect of daily life is regimented in an effort to forcibly instil secular, homogeneous Chinese nation and Communist party ideals, the 160-page report said.
And here it is. ❗️WARNING❗️this is a press conference featuring family and neighbours of @TribunalUyghur witnesses who may be speaking under duress. People who haven’t been seen by their exiled families in a long time.
— Luke de Pulford 裴倫德 (@lukedepulford) June 9, 2021
In recent days, China has also been accused of rolling out birth-control policies targeting the same minority groups, aiming to cut between 2.6 to 4.5 million births within 20 years.
Aside from the Uighurs and Kazakhs, the Hui, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik minorities in Xinjiang have also been swept up in the campaign.
China has previously rejected the genocide and ethnic cleansing charges, saying the internment camps are vocational training centres aimed at countering the threat of “extremism”.
On Wednesday, Beijing also presented family members and former neighbours to refute the testimonies of witnesses who have appeared at a UK special tribunal investigating allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. However, a human rights advocate warned that Beijing’s witnesses may have been speaking “under duress”.
‘Tiger chair’ interrogation
Since early 2017, huge numbers of Uighur men and women as well as other Muslim ethnic minorities have been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned, the report said.
They include hundreds of thousands who have been sent to prisons in addition to the one million the UN estimates to have been sent to the internment camps. Al Jazeera has published similar witness accounts detailing the experience of Uighurs inside the detention centres.
All of the more than 50 former detainees told Amnesty they were detained for what appeared to be entirely lawful conduct, such as possessing a religiously themed picture or communicating with someone abroad
The witnesses said that many of them underwent intense interrogation at police stations, and the process included beatings and sleep deprivation.
They were also made to sit up to 24 hours in so-called “tiger chairs”, with affixed leg irons and handcuffs that restrain the body in painful positions.
One woman, detained for having the WhatsApp messaging platform on her phone, said life under detention was heavily regimented, from an early morning flag-raising ceremony to a series of classroom sessions and late-night duties to monitor other cellmates.
“There was not a minute left for yourself. You are exhausted,” the woman was quoted as saying by Amnesty.
Every former detainee interviewed suffered torture or other ill-treatment, including electric shocks, water and sleep deprivation and exposure to extreme cold among others, the report said.
An older woman who was punished for defending her cellmate said she was taken to a small, dark, cold and windowless room where she had her hands and feet cuffed and was forced to sit on an iron chair for three days straight.
Two former detainees said they had been forced to wear heavy shackles – in one case for an entire year. Others described being shocked with electric batons or sprayed with pepper spray.
Some detainees reported being tortured multiple times, while others said they were forced to watch their cellmates being tortured.
Amnesty International learned of one case where a detainee is believed to have died as a result of being restrained in a tiger chair, in front of his cellmates, for 72 hours, during which time he urinated and defecated on himself.
“China must immediately dismantle the internment camps, release the people arbitrarily detained in them and in prisons, and end the systematic attacks against Muslims in Xinjiang,” said Callamard.
“The international community must speak out and act in unison to end this abomination, once and for all.”
A United States Senate committee held a hearing on Thursday addressing the alleged atrocities in Xinjiang with testimony from Uighur advocates and US researchers.
US legislators are considering bans on imports of solar panels and other products made with forced labour and plan to probe the role of US technology firms in enabling China’s mass repression in Xinjiang.
“We have some very concrete steps we can take,” said Senator Tim Kaine, adopting the Amnesty report as part of the Senate hearing record.
The US in March joined the EU, UK and Canada in levying specific sanctions on Chinese officials for what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called “genocide and crimes against humanity”.
In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended Beijing’s policy towards Uighurs and other groups, telling the UN Human Rights Council that “there has never been so-called genocide, forced labour or religious oppression in Xinjiang”.
He had also invited the UN human rights commissioner to visit the closed-off region but gave no time frame.
Amnesty said it would be stepping up its campaign to secure the release of more than 60 people from Muslim minorities who are missing and believed to be detained in Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, Beijing faces more pressure as lawyers have submitted new evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) that China is forcibly returning thousands of Xinjiang people from Tajikistan to China.
Beijing denies the allegations of abuse and is not a signatory to the ICC statute. Tajikistan is a member, and lawyers hope its membership could be a way to bring the allegations of Chinese mistreatment of Uighurs before the court.
“Based on this new dossier of evidence presented to the ICC prosecutor, showing the actions of Chinese authorities directly in Tajikistan – an ICC State Party – it is clear that the ICC does have jurisdiction to open an investigation,” Rodney Dixon, a lawyer representing Uighur groups, said in a statement.