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UHRP condemns “Legalization” of internment camps and expresses concerns about the transportation of Uyghur detainees

October 18, 2018 by admin

On October 9, 2018 the regional government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, also known as East Turkestan, issued a revised version of the regional de-extremification regulations (unofficial translation available at China Law Translate).


Article 33 of the revised regulations calls for “[o]occupational skills education and training centers and other education and transformation bodies” to carry out language, legal and occupational training, as well as “anti-extremist ideological education, and psychological and behavioral correction to promote thought transformation of trainees.”

While the media is referring to this as the “legalization” of the massive system of internment camps that holds approximately 10 per cent of the Uyghur population, the law does not make reference to the nature of the camps as involuntary detention centers.  Chinese legal system experts are noting that the new regulations do not in fact allow for the indefinite detention that is taking place in the camps.  The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) agrees that because it does not appear to establish legal provisions which supersede the national level counter-terrorism law’s maximum of 15 days detention without charge, those imprisoned in the camps are being held under arbitrary and extrajudicial detention.

The revisions to the de-extremification regulations seek to further disguise the internment camps as “vocational training” centers.  In a recent interview with NPR, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai denied there were camps, but said that all measures the Chinese authorities are taking in East Turkestan are justified.  It appears that the Chinese authorities are determined to continue their current policy of large-scale extrajudicial detention.

Furthermore, UHRP is extremely concerned about recent reports describing the transportation of Uyghurs detained in internment camps in East Turkestan to facilities in inner China, including places as far away as Heilongjiang.   Police in Kashgar Prefecture told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that since the beginning of the year Uyghurs have been transferred to cities in China under escort from the Public Security Bureau. Officials stated that the transfer was due to the high number of prisoners in the region, while others said it was part of a “prisoner exchange” with facilities in inner China. 

If these exchanges to distant provinces involve Uyghurs held without due process in re-education camps, they constitute an extreme form of extra-judicial detention even by Chinese standards. These transfers take Uyghur detainees far away from their families, who are not informed on the whereabouts of their relatives.  Uyghur individuals in the diaspora community UHRP has spoken to fear that their relatives will never return home, and that they will never be told what happened to them. Transferring Uyghurs to inner China is putting them into an unfamiliar culture where they may not speak the language, in part to ensure there is no chance they will be under guard by a friend or relative and to help prevent information about the camps from leaking out. 

Given that the same RFA report quotes officials saying that prisoners from eastern provinces are being transferred to prisons in East Turkestan, it appears that this policy may be aimed at dispersing the Uyghur population more than alleviating overcrowding.  The fact that the prisons holding Uyghurs are so crowded speaks volumes about the Chinese government’s policies in the region; 21% of arrests in 2017 took place in East Turkestan, despite its population making up only 1.5% of China’s total.

The authorities are moving prisoners by bus and train.  Local media announced sales of passenger train tickets will be suspended until further notice beginning on October 22.  This suggests large numbers of Uyghurs held in extrajudicial internment camps are scheduled for transportation to inner China in the coming weeks.  James Liebold, an expert in China’s ethnic policies, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he believes the authorities are planning to “make it more difficult to track what has become of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities who have literally disappeared from their families into state custody.”  UHRP shares these fears, and believes it is possible that the authorities are increasingly blurring the lines between the prison population and those being held extra-judicially for “re-education.”

Another RFA report states detainees in the southern part of East Turkestan are being transferred north, while those in the north are being sent to Gansu and elsewhere in inner China.  Witnesses describe buses with curtained windows heading towards Urumchi, as well as streets being shut to private vehicles as bus convoys passed and passersby were prevented from filming or photographing.  Meanwhile, some highways in the region have been closed until spring, reportedly to facilitate the transfer of prisoners via bus. 

“Uyghurs are being taken thousands of miles away from their families under complete secrecy, despite not having been officially accused of any crime, let alone tried,” said UHRP Director Omer Kanat.  “This policy of transporting Uyghur detainees away from their homeland by train to an unknown fate brings to mind the policies of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.”

Many of those who remain in East Turkestan are being transferred into the custody of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary institution which constitutes a parallel government in the region.  Furthermore it has been reported in the past that some Uyghurs detained in this latest “strike hard” campaign have been sorted into the prison system in addition to the large number sent to internment camps. 

China’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review will provide an opportunity for the international community to call on China to account for its policies in East Turkestan.  Now that the revised de-extremification regulations describe the establishment of re-education centers, the international community should push China to allow UN and other international delegations to visit them to assess conditions.  The Chinese government should also be pushed to release any individuals being held without charge, and the UN Human Rights Council should recommend that the Chinese government reverse its counterproductive policies in the region.

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