The prevalence of torture and the efforts of the Chinese government to cover up its treatment of Muslim minorities are described in detail in an Amnesty International report on detention camps in western China.
All of the former camp detainees interviewed by Amnesty in the report described cruel and degrading treatment, including torture. The report, released Thursday, is based on interviews with 108 people, including 55 camp survivors and several government officials who worked in the camps.
In an attempt to hide camp conditions from the world, Chinese authorities created a massive bonfire lasting nearly a week, burning as many documents as possible from an office overseeing the camps, according to a former executive who spoke to Amnesty. and whose identity has been withheld for his safety.
The report also gives a behind-the-scenes look at the government’s “tours” of the camps for international journalists, which aim to present the facilities, which Chinese authorities call “re-education camps”, in a positive light.
The documents fire took place in 2019 following a leak of a mine of official Chinese government documents revealing the high-level organization and planning of the internment camps. They were published as part of a global reporting project led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which included NBC News.
A coordinated government effort to control information about the camps in the aftermath of the leak was first reported by The Associated Press.
A government official who said he witnessed the fire told Amnesty “it took five or six days to burn everything down. [in the office]. It wasn’t just the [detainees’] files. This is all material related to rehabilitation. For example, all meeting notes. “
Chinese authorities in the western Xinjiang region have been rounding up women and men – largely Muslims from the Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnic minorities – and detaining them in camps designed to rid them of terrorist or extremist tendencies since 2017.
Over a million Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang are believed to be held in internment camps, where they are forced to study Marxism, renounce their religion, work in factories and be victims of ‘abuse, according to human rights groups and first-hand accounts. Beijing says these “re-education camps” provide vocational training and are necessary to fight extremism.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Former detainee whose identity was withheld for his safety told Amnesty he and others had been trained for days on what to say to foreign journalists and even Chinese government delegations visiting from Beijing who have visited camps.
“One day they told us journalists were coming,” he said. “And that when you see them smile. And say what you were told or you will be taken to an underground room [where people are tortured]. “
Amnesty has interviewed in person in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey and remotely in several other countries in Asia, Europe and North America. Forty-four of the 55 former detainees had never publicly shared any part of their stories before and their accounts represent a significant part of all the public testimony gathered on the situation inside the internment camps since 2017.
“The cover-up by the Chinese government is still ongoing,” said lead author of the report, Jonathan Loeb.
“The government has made extraordinary efforts to prevent people from leaving Xinjiang,” he said, making reporting the story extremely difficult.
Given the risk of detention or disappearance for those who speak publicly about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, no interviews have been conducted in Xinjiang, either in person or remotely, according to Amnesty, and the identity of all witnesses has been withheld.
The majority of witnesses interviewed by Amnesty are Kazakhs, a minority are Uyghurs and a small number are Kyrgyz or Han Chinese.
Each former detainee interviewed by Amnesty has been tortured or subjected to other cruel treatment during their internment, according to the report.
Amnesty has separated torture or ill-treatment into two categories: those which took place as a result of daily life in the camps and those which took place during interrogation or as punishment for the “misconduct” of some detainees.
According to the report, the torture methods used during interrogation and as punishment included beatings, electric shocks and stressful positions.
They also included sleep deprivation, being hung from a wall or being locked in what is called a “tiger chair,” a steel chair with shackles and handcuffs attached that make the body motionless, often in painful positions.
A former detainee told Amnesty that he witnessed the torture of a cellmate who he said was being punished for pushing a guard, and who was forced to sit on a tiger chair in the middle of his room. cell, tied up and immobilized, for three days. He said he was expressly prohibited from helping the man.
“Of them [cuffs] were wrapped around his wrists and legs… A rubber thing attached to the ribs to make the person [sit] straight on … he [urinate and defecate] on the chair … We told the guards. They said to clean it up. Her buttocks were injured. His eyes appear unconscious, ”he said in the report.
The former detainee also told Amnesty that he later learned that the man died in the camp.