Inside Xinjiang’s Prison StateFebruary 26, 2021
The officers took Otarbai to the Tacheng police station. He was surprised to see that the building, which he remembered from his time living in the city, had been outfitted with new metal security doors and a fingerprint scanner. Around 1 A.M., Otarbai was interrogated again. This time, he was secured to the same type of chair he’d seen in the Koktokay police station, which he later learned to call a “tiger chair.” His arms and legs were cuffed. When he asked what he’d done wrong, the officers replied that they were simply following instructions. One officer pointed to a camera mounted on the wall. “They are watching us,” he said.
Otarbai’s interrogation ended soon after he acknowledged his phone’s contents, and the police took him to a nearby hospital for a medical checkup. Although he was the only patient there in shackles and handcuffs, he still hoped that he would be freed. Instead, the police took him to Tacheng’s pretrial detention center. He spent the next three months there, sharing crowded jail cells with as many as twenty-two other prisoners. By his own account, Otarbai was a badly behaved detainee. He shouted at guards, demanding his release, which led to beatings. During one encounter, a guard told Otarbai that he would rot in jail, then struck his head with a metal baton, causing him to bleed. “Nobody interrogated me,” he said. “Nobody told me what was happening.” He assumed his detention was a mistake that would soon be corrected. On November 22nd, three months after Otarbai entered the detention center, police officers read aloud a list of prisoners who would be transferred to a “political learning center.” More than two dozen detainees were handcuffed, shackled, hooded, and loaded into police minivans. Otarbai was among them.
Less than a month after Kokteubai reunited with Aynur, the police summoned him to a meeting. Several hours later, Aynur received a phone call from her husband. He said police officers were taking him to a nearby secondary school that had been turned into a detention camp. He asked her to bring him some warm clothes.
A wall topped with barbed wire surrounded the school. At the front gate, Kokteubai waited for Aynur under guard. She brought him socks and underwear and took his phone, then watched him disappear into the facility. Authorities made Aynur sign a document from the county security bureau. “Notice to family of the student-trainee,” the document reads. “In accordance with Article 38 of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Measures to Implement the ‘People’s Republic of China Anti-Terrorism Law,’ our bureau has, from the 6th of September, 2017, started education and training for Nurlan Kokteubai as he is”—the next section of the form was handwritten—“under suspicion of having dealings with individuals suspected of terrorist activities.”
The charges baffled Kokteubai. To his knowledge, he had never met a terrorist. On his second day of detention, a member of the camp administration came to see him. Kokteubai asked when he would learn what he was accused of doing. He was surprised to learn that he wouldn’t be questioned at all. “If you hadn’t committed a crime, you wouldn’t have ended up here,” the administrator told him. “So there is something you are here for.”
In November, 2017, Otarbai, the truck driver, rode in a police minibus to a former retirement home that had been converted into a detention center, with high walls and watchtowers—the Tacheng Regional Vocational Skills, Education, and Training Center. During a medical exam, he learned that he had lost nearly sixty pounds during his three months in police detention. In the next three months, he shared small cells with a revolving cast of other detainees.
Koksebek, the herder, didn’t speak Chinese, and found it difficult to recite the national anthem and other patriotic songs that detainees were forced to learn. As punishment, he did stints in solitary confinement. Otarbai spent hours in their cell teaching Koksebek the songs by heart, one syllable at a time. “I can say he taught me Chinese,” Koksebek said.
Every morning, guards delivered meagre rations of vegetables and rice. The students received meat rarely, and Koksebek was concerned that it was not halal. For several hours each day, they watched state-produced news broadcasts, documentaries, and speeches by President Xi Jinping. Video cameras kept them under constant surveillance. In time, Otarbai learned the stories of his cellmates. Some had downloaded WhatsApp, like he had. Others had bought property in foreign countries. They shared stories and gossip while completing exercises in their Chinese workbooks or watching TV. The detainees were never allowed outside. “Of course, you are bored,” Otarbai said. “But they wouldn’t leave us alone.”
In a series of separate interviews in Kazakhstan, the three men spoke about their detentions, describing the Tacheng camp in detail. The retirement home’s dormitory bedrooms had been transformed into prison cells with triple-locking metal doors and surveillance cameras. Each room had eight barracks-style bunks, but there were often not enough beds for everyone. Seituly preferred to sleep on the floor to warm himself against the underfloor heating. “The light is always on,” Otarbai said. “You can’t see your own shadow.” Each day, guards woke the detainees around 6:30 A.M. Beijing time—two hours ahead of their local time zone. “We would sing the Chinese Red songs every morning, every day,” Otarbai said.
In November, when Otarbai arrived, the camp was mostly empty. By the next month, when Koksebek joined him, the adjacent rooms began to fill. Daily classes began. Detainees spent ten hours in a classroom: four hours each in the morning and afternoon, and two hours of review at night. “After breakfast, we would go to classes, and then we would study until the evening,” Otarbai said. Iron bars divided the classroom: students on one side and teachers on the other, flanked by rifle-wielding guards. Once the students were in the room, the door was locked. Each classroom accommodated eighty to ninety students. “Old people with vision problems would sit at the front,” Otarbai recalled. “The youngest ones—as young as eighteen—would sit at the back.”
Students were divided into different classes. Koksebek, who had a second-grade education, was in the lowest level, where he learned basic Chinese words and numbers. For high-school and college graduates, like Otarbai and Seituly, classes focussed on political indoctrination and, to an obsessive degree, they said, the dangers of Islam. “ ‘Religion is like an opium,’ they tell us,” Seituly recalled. “They talk about jihadists. They say that if someone doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol, they might be having extremist thoughts.”
Although it was forbidden to talk with classmates, Otarbai recognized prominent local people in his class, including imams, intellectuals, and former mayors. “There were a lot of influential people,” he said. Just as he was at the pretrial detention center, Otarbai was a surly prisoner, demanding his release and better treatment for him and his cellmates. As punishment, he frequently spent time in solitary confinement, in a squalid cell too small to lie down in. During one interrogation, guards forced him to strip, drenched him in water, and beat him. Another time, he was shocked with an electric prod.
Former detainees described striking similarities in the design of the camps. Door-locking systems, furniture, color-coded uniforms, and classroom layouts were often virtually identical from camp to camp. Several detainees in Tacheng, and at other camps, described two yellow lines that were painted on the floors of hallways inside the buildings, to direct inmates and guards around the compound. One day in March, the three Kazakh men and their cellmates were ordered to line up in the hall. Rumors circulated that those staying behind would be freed, and those being transferred would be imprisoned permanently. “They took us outside, four hundred of us, group by group,” Seituly recalled. In the yard, the men were ordered to squat as policemen and guard dogs circled them. The police placed hoods over the prisoners’ heads and led them, in pairs, to waiting buses. “They had rifles and were yelling at us. Then they put hoods on us. Like the Second World War. Like the fascists dealing with the Jews,” Seituly said. “We thought they were going to shoot us there.” The men were driven to a newly built camp a few miles away.
“You aren’t allowed to sing in Kazakh or Uighur, but you can in Mongolian, Chinese, or English,” he explained.
A few days later, a camp administrator visited Aynur. The official said that Kokteubai was in the hospital. He’d had a cardiac event. She was ordered to go to the camp hospital to take care of him as he recovered, but cameras monitored them throughout her visit. “If I attempted to talk to him, a voice would come over the loudspeaker and tell us to stop,” she said. This was the third time that Kokteubai had been hospitalized for heart problems during his detention.
In April of 2018, seven months after his detention began, Kokteubai was released, likely owing to poor health. When he left the camp, he could barely walk. The authorities made Aynur sign a paper pledging to be responsible for her husband’s continuing education. He began attending classes in Akkoi Farm with his wife.