“Like We Were Enemies in a War": China's Mass Internment, Torture, and Persecution of Muslims in XinjiangJune 11, 2021
For several months after being released, nearly all former camp detainees were placed under some form of house arrest or “neighbourhood” arrest. Those who were occasionally allowed to leave their homes (or other areas to which they were confined) were required to get written permission from the authorities beforehand. After this period, some of the restrictions placed on their freedom of movement were slowly lifted.
Members of ethnic minority groups who have never been sent to internment camps also face serious restriction on their movements within Xinjiang. Former residents of Xinjiang reported they and their family members were forbidden from travelling outside their neighbourhood without permission.
Reyhangül, who had been living outside of Xinjiang, returned to her hometown in 2018 to find that she now needed written permission from local government officials to travel to see her friends in another town. She told Amnesty the movement restrictions also affected her family and her community. “People were not moving anywhere [outside of our neighbourhood] because they could not get permission… My [family members] couldn’t go anywhere. They were essentially bonded to the house and to their work,” she said.
Interviewees said permission was needed to enter specific Uyghur neighbourhoods in certain cities. “Since 2016, there were special areas in Urumqi where Uyghur communities are totally blocked. If I want to go into these areas then I have to give the police my ID and tell them where I am going and for how long,” Ismail said. Meryemgül told Amnesty the Uyghur population in her town had their movements restricted; her movements were even further restricted because she had travelled abroad:
There is a travel restriction. If we needed to go from town to town we needed to get permission [from the government]… Guests needed to be registered and you needed to ‘guarantee’ that guest… Because I went abroad, I had an ‘[alert]’ on my ID… When I went [to this town] there was a checkpoint and they checked my ID card and told me to come into a room where they held suspicious people… [After that] I was afraid to use my ID.
Former residents reported that a “flag” was assigned to their ID for reasons they did not know and that they were prevented from travelling to certain areas or entering certain buildings as a result. “If you got flagged from a checkpoint then the flag would stay with you… I got flagged and I was prevented from riding a bus and from entering a hospital.”
These movement restrictions are enforced through a ubiquitous electronic surveillance network. Whenever members of ethnic minorities do move about in Xinjiang, the government tracks their movements through their phones and by the ever-present network of surveillance cameras on street corners and lamp posts, many of which have facial recognition capabilities.
Journalists have reported that the facial recognition technology is specifically programmed to “detect, track, and monitor Uyghurs.” “Every roof of a police station, a checkpoint, also has many cameras. On every corner, on every red light, there are many cameras. You can’t count. There are so many… They are at the entrance of every Uyghur-populated area,” Ismail said. Ibrahim told Amnesty a camera was installed outside his house after he was released from a camp. Yerkinbek said officials threatened to install a camera in his place of work after they interrogated him and accused him of behaving suspiciously. Two individuals who worked for the government told Amnesty that officials installed cameras outside the houses of families that were being monitored. “Targeted families have cameras installed outside of the gates of the house [to monitor them]… I saw this everywhere,” Aiman said.
In addition to surveillance by ubiquitous cameras, the population is monitored by a huge number of security forces, who often check ID and search people’s phones in the street, and by thousands of “convenience police stations” and other checkpoints located throughout Xinjiang. Numerous residents told Amnesty about the increase in the number of police on the streets. “The number of auxiliary police increased. They are everywhere. In one street you might be checked several times. You might be questioned several times,” Azhar said.
“[In 2016 and early 2017] the police were everywhere, you could hear the ringing of police sirens all the time,” Merdan said. “Assistant police started randomly checking everyone’s phones… They were taking anyone with something [forbidden] on their phone to the camp… I used to clean my phone before I went into the city… It was a very scary time,” Yerkinbek said.
Numerous residents told Amnesty how large numbers of security checkpoints were constructed in their towns and neighbourhoods in 2017. “After Chen [Quanguo] came [to Xinjiang as party secretary], he built thousands of police outposts in the street. Every 200–300 metres. I saw them myself every day in Urumqi… My home is on [a street], and in a very short time five or six [convenience] police stations were built within 1–2 kilometres [on the street],” Asanali told Amnesty. Kunsulu described how the security forces grew dramatically in his area after 2017 and what it was like to go through checkpoints:
In streets, the police outnumbered people… Every street had a temporary police station… it was impossible to get into the market without an ID. They would check ID, search your body and then let you in… In the temporary police stations… you go through a metal detector and facial recognition, and you scan your ID card. If there are no problems, you can go through; if not, the room is divided into two parts. It is divided by glass with police on the other side. If something is wrong, you are questioned [on the other side].
Residents told Amnesty International that at checkpoints they were required to have their ID scanned, to have iris or facial scans, and to have their phones and sometimes their bodies searched. Interviewees also said they were required to scan their ID when they made purchases in butcher shops or gas stations, and that anything suspicious that was purchased, like a knife, needed to have a QR code on it. “I went to the town centre for shopping. I went to a tailor… The [tailor’s] scissors had a bar code on them and were chained to the wall… Police were checking stores all the time. Even [steam] irons were chained to the wall,” Reyhangül said. “In 2017… at every shopping centre, even little boutiques had to register the customers who came in and out so the police could follow up,” Azat said.
All former detainees faced significant restrictions on their freedom of movement after they were released from the camps. Nearly all were prohibited from leaving their village or township. If they were allowed to leave, they were required to get written permission from the authorities beforehand. According to a document provided by a former detainee, the permit application had to be approved by four different local government agencies, including the police station and Party committee.
Some former detainees were put under additional detention in the form of house arrest for several months. Many were required to check in with the police or village administrators daily. A few former detainees were forced to live at the village administration office or police station for a few weeks or months.
Aitugan told Amnesty how his movements were restricted after he was released: “I spent five months being monitored. I just stayed in the village. I couldn’t leave without permission. I had to report to the village office each morning. I needed permission to leave the village from the village chief,” he said.
Many former detainees reported that for months after they left the camp their ID cards were programmed such that an alarm would sound whenever they travelled through the ever-present checkpoints or whenever they left their village.598 After an ID triggered an alarm, former detainees were often interrogated about the same things they were questioned about after their initial detention and during their time in the camp. Mahabbat, who had been detained for a year for visiting Kazakhstan, told Amnesty International how her movement was restricted after she was released from a camp:
After I was released… it was house arrest. Every time I scanned my ID it went off… I wasn’t allowed to go to another town. Even in the streets, the camp follows you… Even when I went to buy a meal, I had to fill in a form saying I had been to a camp. It was shameful… My daughter was living [in another town but] I couldn’t visit her because of this. Can you imagine going into the street and the police surrounding you every time?
After several months some of the movement restrictions began to decrease. Many former detainees reported that some restrictions were lifted after six months.602 Others told Amnesty the restrictions on their movements lasted a year.603 One former detainee told Amnesty the restrictions on his movements were removed at the same time as those of others released when he was.
Many former detainees told Amnesty that regaining their freedom of movement – to travel abroad and, in some cases, to travel within China outside their home villages – was contingent upon having one or more guarantors who agreed in writing that they themselves would be sent to a camp if the person they were guaranteeing spoke or shared information about the internment camp system.606One older woman said she needed many guarantors to leave China.
Before leaving, people must go through a labyrinthine bureaucratic process to get their passports back and to secure permission to go abroad. Ex-detainees face a further round of interrogations by security personnel and must sign additional documents stating they will not say anything about being in a camp or else their family members will be sent to a camp. A few detainees were forced to give video testimonies before leaving the country.
Aldiyar, who spent several months trying to secure permission to travel to Kazakhstan, told Amnesty International he was forced to make a video extolling the benefits of the education he received in the camp before he was allowed to leave.
One week [after I got my passport back], people from the police called me again. Then they took my passport again and said they would keep it until a county-level official signed [the form]. And then they gave me a piece of paper to sign saying I would not disclose anything about the camp or the secrets of the People’s Republic of China, and I signed it. I made an oath that I would not disclose… After I signed, three or four cadres came to my house. They came with cameras. Before they started filming me, they told me what to say – that I went to school and that I got knowledge and that I was happy with the government and with the opportunity to gain knowledge… In front of the camera I said that the Party was taking good care of me and that the government was helping the poor people… and that during the seven or eight months of my schooling the teacher and others were friendly and that they taught me well… I was instructed to say this, so I said it. They saved the tape. They repeated to me not to say anything bad. Then I signed the paper where I said I would. Then they gave me my passport back. [Then I left the country].
Ibrahim told Amnesty he was interrogated several times while trying to get passports for his family to go to Kazakhstan. Security officials told him repeatedly that he could not talk about what happened in the camps and that he had to swear on video that he would never disclose anything about the situation. His parents were also required to sign letters of guarantee. “My parents had to say, ‘I do give my consent and I will be taken to a camp if my son ever speaks to foreign media and discloses what happened in camp’,” he told Amnesty. Several months later, his family was given their passports.
Former detainees who managed to go aboard were often threatened with punishment if they did not return on time. Khaina told Amnesty she was continually harassed by officials after she arrived in Kazakhstan. “Once I came to Kazakhstan, I thought I was free… But [government officials] kept calling. I realized that they would never let me live in peace,” she said. Former detainees told Amnesty they believe their family members were sent to camps because they left the country.
Former detainees reported that government officials called them and threatened to send their family members to camps if they did not return or if they spoke out. Merdan told Amnesty that when he left Xinjiang he was told he would be sent to a camp if he did not return on time. When he did not return promptly, police called him and said they would take his father and father-in-law to a camp if he did not return.
Former detainees living abroad described being called by family members in Xinjiang – who were in the presence of government officials – asking them to return and saying that if they did not, the family member would be sent to a camp. Kuanish told Amnesty that police called him with his son, and his son said he was going to be detained if the man did not return. Since that phone call, Kuanish has been unable to speak with his family. “I have no idea where my children are. I have no information,” he said.