“Like We Were Enemies in a War": China's Mass Internment, Torture, and Persecution of Muslims in XinjiangJune 11, 2021
Many detainees were tortured or otherwise ill-treated during the interrogations in police stations before being transferred to the camps. Interrogations and torture were often carried out by members of the domestic security police, known as Guobao; sometimes these acts were also carried out by local police. Former detainees were often interrogated in “tiger chairs” – steel chairs with affixed leg irons and handcuffs that restrain the body, often in painful positions, to an extent that it is essentially immobile. Some detainees were hooded and shackled during interrogations. Kanat, who spent a year in the camps for visiting Kazakhstan, said he was interrogated for several hours while immobilized in a tiger chair: “I was seated on a metal chair. Hands were cuffed. I was interrogated. My feet were also cuffed… It’s a metal chair that contains a board that your hands are cuffed to. And there is an iron base that you put your legs inside. [The interrogation started late at night,] I was questioned until 3am.”
Many former detainees told Amnesty they were held in crowded conditions before being sent to the camps. Nurislam, who said he was held in a detention centre for three weeks before being transferred to a camp, told Amnesty he was forced to stand in a small, crowded cell with 50 other inmates all day. “We don’t even put cows in that terrible condition… We slept side by side touching each other,” he said.
Saken also reported being held in a detention centre for several weeks before being transferred to a camp. He told Amnesty his cell was very cold and extraordinarily crowded, with nearly 60 men living in a space that he estimated to be 30m2:
There was a large bed in the cell; people used to sit on the edge of it, but there was not enough space. We let the elderly people sit on the bed… [The rest of us] had no place to sit or sleep… We slept in turns [because there was not enough space]. The floor was cold and wet. I slept for [weeks] on the floor with no mattress or carpet… It was [winter] already. Our clothes were very thin. It was very cold… And it smelled horrible in the cell.
Before being sent to a camp, nearly all detainees were subjected to a medical examination. Bakyt, a former detainee who worked at a hospital where some people were examined before they were sent to the camps, witnessed large numbers of detainees being brought to the hospital, as well as part of the medical examination process.
In [the city I lived in] there were four hospitals – infection, military, traditional, and regular. In 2017 they all started being used for people sent to re-education camps… At first it was Uyghurs and Hui. They were everyday people, but police treated them as serious criminals. There were six guards per person [brought for a medical examination]. Their eyes were covered, [their heads] hooded, and their hands were cuffed [when they arrived at the hospital]. The whole medical examination was top secret… [The staff at the hospital] had to make sure they were healthy. [The staff] had to draw their blood to make sure they were healthy… They were all young. I was there helping with [redacted]… The targets were young graduates. [At the time, at the hospital I worked at it was] mainly Huis who studied [abroad].
Nearly all former detainees told Amnesty International that in addition to undergoing medical exams they were required to allow government officials to collect their biometric data. This almost always included multiple photographs, fingerprints, an iris scan, a voice recording, and a writing sample. Biometric data was often collected at police stations. Former detainees said blood samples were taken. “Then we went to a police station for what I think was a DNA [sample]… They took our blood, spread it on something, and put it in a plastic wrap,” Bakyt told Amnesty when describing what happened after being detained.
These reports of health checks and biometric data collection are consistent with other former detainee accounts reported elsewhere and with reports of widespread campaigns for biometric data collection from all people in Xinjiang, not just those sent to the camps.
After undergoing a medical exam and having their biometric data collected, nearly all detainees were taken to internment camps. Nearly all were handcuffed while being transferred to the camps. Many were hooded and shackled. “You can’t see through the hood. You can’t see where you are… I was terrified about where I was being taken,” Elnara said.
Many were driven to the camps in vans or buses with large numbers of detainees. Khaina, who was sent to a camp for visiting Kazakhstan, told Amnesty about being transferred to the facility: “They came in the morning. The police entered our cell [in the police station]. They put a black hood [on me]. Handcuffed me. And dragged me to the bus. And then took us to the camp,” she said. Zeynepgul, an older woman who believes she was detained for praying, told Amnesty she was taken from a police station in the middle of the night, handcuffed to another woman, put into a truck with about 20 other detainees from her village, and then driven to a camp.
Detainees had no privacy. They were monitored at all times, including when they ate, slept, and used the toilet. They were forbidden to talk freely with other detainees. When detainees were permitted to speak – to other detainees, guards, or teachers – they were required to speak in Mandarin Chinese, a language many of them, especially older people and those from more rural areas in Xinjiang, did not speak or understand. Some detainees were physically punished if they spoke in a language other than Mandarin. The camps were set up so that it was impossible to practise religion, and former detainees said any sign of religious practice was punished. “We can’t even touch our face, or they would suspect us of praying,” Azizbek said.
Upon arrival at the camps, detainees were searched, their personal effects were confiscated, and they were made to remove certain items of clothing, including shoelaces, belts, buttons, and anything else that could be used as a weapon or as an implement with which to take their own life, just as is often done in prisons. Some women detainees had their hair cut off after arriving, and some men had their heads and beards shaved.
Shortly after being searched, detainees were taken to their cells. Cells in internment camps were basic rooms, usually holding about eight to 20 people. Men and women were detained in separate cells. The cells normally contained two-level or three-level bunkbeds and small stools or chairs. Most detainees had their own bed, but some shared a bed. A few former detainees stated that all people in their cell shared one large bed, known as a kang, which was on the ground, and that people were packed “shoulder to shoulder”. A few former detainees stated that when there were more people than beds, some people slept on the floor. There is usually a TV in the cell and often a Chinese flag on the wall. Windows, if they existed, were barred and usually blacked out. There was a loudspeaker in the room through which camp staff spoke to detainees. There were several closed-circuit television cameras – usually four – in each cell. Cells often had lists of camp rules and “crimes” hanging on the wall. Most detainees reported that the lights in the cell remained on at all times, including during the night.
Cell doors often had two holes, one for the guards stationed in the hallway to look in and another to pass food through. Cell doors were often positioned so that detainees could not see any other rooms from their door. The door to the cell was chained to the wall. Nurislam told Amnesty International how humiliating it was to go under the chain every time he needed to leave the cell. “The door is just half open. It was chained to the wall. We had to crawl under the chain one by one, like dogs,” he said.
The life of camp detainees was highly regimented and in many ways reflected, or was even worse than, life in prisons in China. With the exception of a few former detainees describing the portion of their detention that took place in early 2017, every detainee stated that nearly every aspect of their lives in the camps was prescribed, including the position in which they sat, when they stood, and where they looked, and that this was true for every minute of the day. Khaina, who said she was detained for having WhatsApp on her phone, told Amnesty International how strict the schedule was and how physically draining each day was:
It was like a prison… [Every day] you got up at 5am and had to make your bed, and it had to be perfect. Then there was a flag-raising ceremony and an ‘oath-taking’. Then you went to the canteen for breakfast. Then to the classroom. Then lunch. Then to the classroom. Then dinner. Then another class. Then bed. Every night two people had to be ‘on duty’ [monitoring the other cellmates] for two hours… There was not a minute left for yourself. You were exhausted.
Aitugan, who said he was detained in early 2017 after being labelled a terrorist for travelling to Kazakhstan and for having attended a religious school, told Amnesty International the daily regimentation became much stricter in late 2017, to the point where even resting and the direction of one’s gaze were regulated:
Before October 2017, it was a little relaxing in class. We could go to the canteen [to eat] by ourselves and we could sit relaxed in class. But after the national [security] meeting in October  it became very serious… We had to be ‘on duty’ at night. We were escorted to the canteen. We had no more contact with our family… We had to ‘sit tight’. We could not even turn our heads from the TV… [After it became strict] we got up at 5am. Breakfast was done at 7. Class at 8. We had to [walk] to class through a two-metre-high metal fence with metal ceiling; it was basically a cage… [We were escorted] to class by two guards with clubs… There was a bucket in the back of class [to urinate]. You needed permission to go [defecate]… Rest [after lunch] was mandatory, with heads on desks for two hours. You were punished if you lifted your head.
Many former detainees reported that during the first few days, weeks, or sometimes months after arriving at the internment camps – before they were required to attend classes – they were forced to do nothing but sit still for nearly the entire day. The only breaks were for meals or to sleep. Nearly all former detainees were forced to sit or kneel for hours on end. “We were given a small stool. We were made to sit in two lines, with straight backs and hands on knees, all day. If one guy [in the cell] moved then the guards outside would bang on the door with a baton and shout,” Daulet said.
Many former detainees reported that this position was very painful for their knees and other parts of their body; some developed haemorrhoids and other health problems. “We had to sit straight… In our room there were old women. Their hands and feet swelled up,” Meryemgül said. Many reported that inmates were physically punished if they were unwilling or unable to sit straight. Many reported not being permitted to look anywhere but straight ahead. Meryemgül said that she was told that if the people monitoring her cell on the cameras noticed anyone moving their lips, guards would deduct from their scores.
Based on former detainee testimony, it is unclear whether sitting still and doing nothing was a deliberate policy to demoralize or break the will or spirit of newly arrived detainees or if it was a consequence of the fact that at the start of the government campaign of mass incarceration certain camps were not set up to provide any formalized instruction. It is plausible that it was a deliberate policy in certain camps at certain times but not in others.
Detainees were woken every morning, usually at 5 or 6am, by an alarm coming through the loudspeaker or by a loud knock on the cell door. They were required to get up immediately, quickly make their bed, and then brush their teeth and wash their face in a sink. Most cells did not have sinks and detainees had to crawl under the chain attaching the cell door to the wall and then be escorted to a washroom by a guard. Detainees were rarely permitted to shower. Some detainees showered once a week; others reported not showering for weeks or even months after they arrived. A few former detainees reported having showers in their cells and that they were monitored on video while showering. “In the new camp, beside the toilet there was a shower and a sink… There was a small partition around the shower, but it is not very tall. If you are standing in the shower, they can see you [on camera],” Auelbek said.
Detainees required permission to use the toilet. Some cells had squat toilets; others had a bucket. “Even to go urinate in the bucket [inside the cell] we had to get permission from the guard first,” Ibrahim said. Detainees were monitored by cameras when using the toilet. Guards routinely shouted at detainees if they did not go to the bathroom quickly. “They used to give us one minute to [use the bucket] or they would yell at us,” Sukhrab said.
The majority of former detainees reported rarely, if ever, being allowed outside during their detention, except when walking from their cells to classes if the classroom was in another building. A minority were given a short time outside each day, often to do “military exercises”. Some were not allowed out at all for the first few months in the camps; later, they were given a few minutes a day during the remainder of their internment. Some were given time outside every couple of weeks. Anarbek, a former detainee who was also made to work as a guard at a camp said new detainees were not allowed outside during the first three months of their detention, after which they were allowed a half-hour outside per day.
For detainees who walked to class in another building, that was often the only time they got to walk or leave their rooms during the day. “The second camp was worse because [classes were held in our room and] there was no walk to class, so we were never outside,” Meryemgül said. A few former detainees said the only time they were ever outside was to empty the bucket they and their cellmates urinated in. Zhaina, who said she was sent to the camp because she had WhatsApp on her phone, told Amnesty she was never able to get any exercise or have sunlight or fresh air.
There was no fresh air. There was no sunlight. The windows [in the cell] were blocked… The only opportunity to go outside was to take the trash out. We were never outside, except at the very beginning when there were few people. Once more people arrived, we never went out… and once the number grew they stopped taking us to the canteen and brought food to our room.
Former detainees often reported that their rooms were very cold. Abzal, who was sent to camp in one of the coldest parts of Xinjiang, told Amnesty he spent part of the winter in a cell with no heat, and that the shoes detainees were given were very thin and provided practically no warmth. “It was really, really cold,” he said.
Many former detainees reported that there was little or no natural light in their cells. The rooms usually had either no windows or one very small window, often covered. “There was a metal net over the window so no finger could reach the glass. And the window was covered by [political] slogans. You couldn’t see outside… we sat in a chair the whole day from December to April… during these four months we never saw the sun,” Aibek said.
At around 9 or 10pm, detainees were given a few moments to wash and use the toilet, and then they went to bed. Talking was forbidden at night. Some former detainees reported being made to sleep head-to-toe so they would be unable to communicate with each other at night. “You couldn’t talk. They regulated [how we were positioned when we] slept so that we couldn’t talk – your head was [positioned] next to someone’s feet,” Zarina told Amnesty International.
All detainees were required to “work” one- or two-hour shifts monitoring their cellmates every night. The shifts were spent either walking continuously back and forth or around the cell, or sitting still on the edge of the bed. One former detainee reported that he was instructed to reposition people’s heads or lower the bedding if someone was not sleeping with their face visible and facing the camera. Some former detainees claimed this policy was instituted to ensure no one killed themselves. Several had no idea why they were on duty.
At some point after arriving in camp, nearly all detainees were subjected to highly regimented classes, either in person, via video lectures, or both. The classes were mostly about Chinese language, history, law, and “ideology”. Some involved memorizing and reciting red songs. The typical schedule included three or four hours of class after breakfast. Then detainees had lunch and a short “rest”, which often involved sitting still on a stool or with their heads still on their desks. After lunch there was another three or four hours of classes and then dinner, followed by a few hours to sit or kneel on a stool and silently “review” the day’s material or to watch more “educational” videos. At nearly all times during classes, detainees were required to look straight ahead and not to speak with their classmates.
The teacher and guards entered the classroom using one door and the students entered through another, which, like the cell doors, was chained to the wall. Classes began and ended with the class thanking the teacher for their sacrifice. Students and teachers were physically separated at all times. Classrooms had a hard plastic, wooden, or metal divider, over a metre high, separating the students from the teachers and guards. A wire or metal screen often filled the space above the divider. Some former detainees and one person who worked as a guard at a camp reported that there were multiple guards with weapons in the classroom with them at all times. “[In my class] there were three guards on the same side as the teacher. They wore police uniforms… They wore bullet-proof vests… They had a metal shield that was about 1m high… One had a long spear; it was longer than the guard’s height.”
Desks and stools in the classroom were often attached, and sometimes chained together. Former detainees reported being given short pencils to write with, or only the plastic tube of ink and tip from a disposable pen; they presumed this was because a full-size pencil or a pen could be used as a weapon. Kanat described his experience in the classroom:
Every day was almost the same… We were brought to a place where you had to sit for 17 hours. It was in another room in the same building. [In the classroom] there were five or six armed guards and a teacher. The door to the class was also chained, you must crawl to get in… The teacher was behind a barrier, maybe neck height. You could see them, but you couldn’t cross [the barrier]. The guards were on the teacher’s side. They taught us verses from Confucius. We had to read [the verses] out loud and repeat them hundreds of times. And there were loudspeakers in the classroom. Several times I heard [a voice on the loudspeaker saying], ‘Give more pressure.’
Detainees were made to sit absolutely straight while at their desks. Former detainees reported people being taken out of class and beaten or otherwise punished if they did not sit straight and look straight ahead. Meryemgul told Amnesty International that failure to sit straight could also affect a detainee’s score: “We had to sit straight with our hands behind our back. In our classroom, there were old women. Their hands and feet swelled up. If you missed your home, if you cried, they would deduct from your score – they gave scores to everyone – and they would say that your mind still had problems, that your ideas hadn’t changed.”
All former detainees were subjected to health-related procedures without their consent. This occurred both during their pre-detention health check and during their time in the camp. Nearly every former detainee reported being given injections and having their blood drawn. Almost none were told what the injections or blood samples were for, even after they asked. “They injected me with a liquid, to clean inside my artery. They didn’t have my consent. They said that if I didn’t [allow them] then they would put me in the ‘strict’ group,” Aslan told Amnesty International. A few were told that some of the injections were flu shots or other vaccinations.
There is a widespread belief among detainees that they were being injected to affect their memory or to sterilize them. Amnesty International has no basis upon which to assess these suspicions.
Most former detainees reported becoming sick and weak while in the camps. Most claim they did not receive adequate healthcare. Many report developing chronic health problems. Many stated that after leaving the camps they could no longer sit for long periods without being in pain. Others stated that after leaving the camps they had problems with their memory and with sleeping. A few said they had problems with their eyesight. “There is light in our cells 24/7, but not enough to read [and we were expected to read]. It affected our eyesight,” Alikhan said. A few male former detainees claimed they were unable to function sexually after being released.
Amnesty International interviewed numerous former camp detainees who were tortured or subjected to other ill-treatment during interrogations or punishments. This mistreatment usually took place in interrogation or punishment rooms. These rooms were usually windowless and contained at least one tiger chair, which was used for interrogations. Three former detainees reported that tiger chairs were brought into their cells. Three other former detainees reported being punished in rooms with multiple tiger chairs.
17 former detainees told Amnesty they were interrogated or punished in a tiger chair or other metal chair. Interrogations usually lasted an hour or more; punishments were often much longer. Several people reported being left restrained in a tiger chair for 24 hours or more.
Mansur was also sent to two punishment rooms on multiple occasions for trivial offenses.
[The first time I was taken in the first camp] it was because I tried to look out the window. There was a window with a bar [in my cell]. We were not allowed to look outside… [The first time I was sent in the second camp] was because they made me the responsible person for the cell. Leaders were inspecting the cell. When they came in [to inspect our cell] we had to stand up and show respect but my cell didn’t do it, so I was sent to a punishment room… [The second time I was sent to the punishment room in the second camp] was one day before I was released. It was because I didn’t sit still in the classroom.
Mansur was tortured in both camps. He told Amnesty he was repeatedly electrocuted while being asked repetitively whether he “would do it again”. “[I had to say that] I made a mistake but will not do it again,” he said. “The first time they electric shocked me. Then they tied me up on a chair for 24 hours without food or water… The second time they chained me up [from the wall].” He told Amnesty he was left immobilized in a tiger chair multiple times, and the room was very cold. “They would open the window on winter days,” he said.
Solitary confinement was used in the camps as a form of punishment. In some cases, this punishment could include confinement in tiger chairs, with the person immobilized in the chair left alone for close to a day or longer. In one case, a former detainee stated that the camp she was interned in had a “dark”, tomb-like room, which was windowless and without light, about two metres by one metre, where detainees were sent if they misbehaved. She told Amnesty she was put in the room for two days:
On that day a 70-year-old lady spoke her mother tongue, Uyghur, in our cell… The guards wanted to take her to a tiger chair. I argued with them… They said that I hadn’t learned and still had extremist thoughts, so they put me in the dark room… It’s just a room for one person. I was just lying on the floor… When you lie down [with your head at one end] your feet almost touch the wall… There is a toilet in the room, nothing else.
Physical ill-treatment also takes place throughout the camps outside of interrogation and “formal” punishments, most commonly through beatings, the use of restraints, and the use of pepper spray. Guards routinely beat detainees who “misbehave”, even for the most trivial offences. Amnesty International interviewed numerous people who reported being beaten during detention. Electric batons were often used to electrocute and beat people.
Yerulan told Amnesty that guards routinely beat people as they walked to class, and that a man in his class was taken out of class and beaten for not singing a song properly:
[Name redacted] was beaten, he was an ethnic Uzbek; a Han Chinese [guard] beat him and put him in isolation for 24 hours… He came back with bruises. I was in his cell… and [the guard] would call people who could not recite Chinese content to the door [then the person who was called would stick their hand through the hole in the door] and then cuff them to the door and beat them with an electric baton… I saw [people being beaten] two or three times… I could hear [people being electrocuted] in the hall many more times.
Zhenis, who worked in a camp, told Amnesty that detainees were regularly beaten in his camp. “Every day someone was taken out [of the class] and beaten, with hands, feet, weapons, and baton,” he said.
Batima, who worked in a village administration office and was responsible for looking through the files of people who had been sent to camps, explained to Amnesty how detainees were held responsible for the actions of their family members outside the camps and how family behaviour could have a negative impact on an individual’s score, which is the metric the government uses to determine who should be released:
When someone was [sent to a camp] it affected three generations of the family. For example, if parents were sent then it affected the son – he could not get a job with government or police… Also, for example, the cadres staying with [the families of people in camps] overnight had to report back to the village committee if anyone prayed. And if they found this, then the score [of the person in the camp] would be lowered… And if a person was sent to re-education camp then that person’s family had to attend classes. If they did [attend] then the family would get a good score and [the person in the camp would] get released sooner, or vice versa. We collected scores each week and sent them to re-education camps.