“Like We Were Enemies in a War": China's Mass Internment, Torture, and Persecution of Muslims in XinjiangJune 11, 2021
Amnesty International interviewed 55 people – 39 men and 16 women – who spent time in internment camps and were later released. All of these former detainees were arbitrarily detained for what appears to be, by all reasonable standards, entirely lawful conduct; that is, without having committed any internationally recognized criminal offence. Their detention in internment camps violated numerous fundamental aspects of international human rights law. All of the detainees were denied due process during and after their initial detention. None were allowed access to legal counsel. None were provided with an arrest warrant or even a reason for their detention that included a credible allegation of a criminal offence recognized under international law.
Former internment camp detainees Amnesty International interviewed were often detained without warning. Many were taken away from their homes in the middle of the night. Others were called by the police or by their village administration office and told to report to a police station – often under the pretence of being requested to hand in their passport – and then detained once they arrived. Several were pressured by government officials or employers to come back from working, studying, or living abroadand then detained shortly after returning, often at the airport or land border.
Aiman, a government cadre who participated in mass detentions in Xinjiang, told Amnesty how, in late 2017, police took people from their homes without warning, how family members of the detained people reacted, and what the role of government cadres was in the process:
I was there… The police would take people out of their houses… with hands handcuffed behind them, including women… and they put black hoods on them… The police had a list [of people to detain]… Nobody could resist. Imagine if, all of a sudden, a group [of police] enters [your home], cuffs you and puts [a black hood] over your head… [Family members of the people being detained] just asked why this was happening… We accompanied [the police]. [Cadres] did not do much [related to physically detaining people]. Our main duty was to calm down and comfort the relatives [of those being detained] and tell them these things happened all the time… It was very sad… [Afterwards] I cried… That night we made 60 arrests… That was just in one district [of many where people were being detained]… Every day they arrested more people.
Meryemgul, who also worked for the government during a period in which large numbers of detentions were made, also described the experience to Amnesty: “In many families, only women were left. In some houses, the door was locked because both parents are gone and the children are taken to boarding school.”
Ilyas, who worked for the government, was present on numerous calls with officials from all over Xinjiang in 2017. During these calls, officials were routinely asked to report the number of people from their areas who had been sent to camps. Ilyas told Amnesty that thousands of people were reported as having been sent to camps during most calls.
Some former detainees interviewed were provided with reasons for their detentions at the time they were initially detained; however, many were not given any reason until after arriving at an internment camp, and often not until being forced to “confess” to “crimes” shortly before they were released. Several were given a reason for their detention when they were detained and then a different reason when they were released. Some were never given any reason. “Until today, I don’t know why I was in the camp,” Mansur lamented.
Former detainees told Amnesty International that the reasons they were given for their detention were often not tied to specific acts; rather, detainees were informed that they had been detained because they had been classified as “suspicious” or “untrustworthy” or as a “terrorist” or an “extremist”. The precise criteria for such classifications are not known; however, the government of China has used such terms – particularly “terrorist” and “extremist” – in over-broad ways in the context of counter-terrorism legislation.
When specific acts were mentioned, they generally fell into a few broad categories. One category includes offences related to foreign countries. Numerous former detainees were detained for living, travelling, or studying abroad or for communicating with people abroad. Many were even detained simply for being “connected” with people who lived, travelled, studied, or communicated with people abroad.
Another category of detainee includes those detained for offences related to using unauthorized software or digital communications technology. Many former detainees were detained for using or having forbidden software applications on their mobile phones, especially WhatsApp.
Another common category includes anything related to religion. Former detainees were detained for reasons related to Islamic beliefs or practice, including working in a mosque, praying, having a prayer mat, or possessing a picture or a video with a religious theme.
Other former detainees were detained for having too many children or otherwise violating China’s strict family planning policies. One former detainee said they had been detained for refusing to work for the government. Elnara, who while detained helped dozens of other inmates fill in “confession” forms on which they were required to list their “crimes”, said the most common reason she observed was “having multiple household registrations”, which is prohibited under Chinese law. One former detainee, who was accused of this offence just before her release, told Amnesty she had no idea that having multiple registrations was illegal or that she was still registered at her family’s home where she grew up. She believed the government was simply using this as a pretext to detain whomever it wanted.
A few former detainees told Amnesty they had been detained after receiving explicit permission to do the very thing they were reportedly detained for. Aibek told Amnesty he was detained for travelling domestically, even though he had obtained prior approval to do so from the appropriate authorities.
Bolat told Amnesty he was detained twice for travelling even though he had received permission from the appropriate authorities both times.
[After I was detained the second time] I asked the village chief [why I was detained]. He said, ‘We are doing what we are told. We don’t know why. All people who are travelling abroad go to the camp. You have no right to ask questions. If you ask why it will be seen as resistance. It will not be good for you. You will get answers in the camp.’
Analysed together with the Aksu and Karakax lists and with other testimonial and documentary evidence gathered by journalists, the testimonial evidence Amnesty International has gathered demonstrates that members of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are often detained on the basis of what can only be considered “guilt by association”. Many were interned as a result of their relationships, or perceived or alleged relationships, with family, friends, or community members – many, if not most, of whom were themselves not guilty of any internationally recognized criminal offence. Many former detainees were detained for having a family member who was considered suspicious or untrustworthy or who was accused of being an “extremist”, “separatist”,or “terrorist”, or for contacts with others facing these accusations.
Amnesty International interviewed several former residents of Xinjiang who believe their own behaviour was the reason their family members were detained. Shamil went abroad and did not return on time. He told Amnesty [he suspects] his father was sent to a camp because of his decision. Kuanish, who also did not return from abroad on time, said the police called him from his house in China and had his son ask him to return from abroad and tell him the family would be sent to the camps if he did not. Since then, he has not been able to communicate with his family. “I do not know where my children are,” Kuanish said. Azhar, a former detainee, told Amnesty that his father was taken to an internment camp because his father “let” him go abroad after he was released. “When my father was about to be detained, the police called me and said come [back to China]… They said we will let your father go if you come back.”