“Like we were enemies in a war”

China’s Mass Internment, Torture and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang

“Like we were enemies in a war” China’s Mass Internment, Torture and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang

Illustrations by Molly Crabapple


‘Camp to prison’

Some detainees are transferred from internment camps to prison. Like the process of being released to go home, the seemingly related process through which camp detainees were given prison sentences is not well understood, even by former detainees who appear to have had some exposure to the process. It is also unclear how the release process and the sentencing process were connected – especially how, or if, the prison sentencing process in the camps is integrated with any formal sentencing process outside the camps.

Amnesty International was not able to interview anyone who was given a prison sentence in a camp and then sent to a prison. Amnesty did, however, interview former camp detainees who said they were given sentences that were subsequently “forgiven”. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Amnesty also interviewed former detainees who said that, while they were detained, one or more of the people in their classes received prison sentences. This included in some instances sentences of 15 or 20 years, often apparently for everyday behaviour far removed from any type of recognized offence. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Many of the former detainees personally knew other people – usually multiple people – who had been given prison sentences. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Yerkinbek, who was living in Xinjiang in 2020, told Amnesty he believed that many people in the camps, particularly those detained for religion-related offences, had been transferred to prison. “In September 2019 we started hearing that many Kazakhs had been released from camps, but some were sent to prison for many years… I have information about 13 people [from my area] who were sentenced [and sent to prison]. Most of them were imams. I know some of them personally,” he said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

At some point during their internment, many camp detainees were presented with a verdict that lists their “crimes” and often includes a custodial sentence. Former detainees said the verdicts were announced verbally at the end of a process referred to as a “trial”. However, none of the former detainees Amnesty interviewed experienced anything resembling a genuine judicial or even administrative process, let alone one that involved fair trial safeguards. Just as with their original detention in the camps, they had no opportunity to defend themselves, examine any evidence, or consult a lawyer. Some former detainees did not recall any real process preceding the announcement of a verdict and said their verdicts and those of their classmates were just read out in class. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Some detainees were told that their sentence was expected to be served in the camp; others were sentenced and sent to prison.

Former detainees interviewed by Amnesty International generally believed that detainees sent to camps for religion-related “offences” were more likely to have been given subsequent prison sentences. [[[Deutsche Welle (DW), China convicts Uighurs in Sham trials at Xinjiang Camps, 8 June 2020 ]]] Some detainees also believe that ethnicity was correlated with whether a detainee was sent to a prison. Uyghurs were perceived as more likely to be sentenced than members of other ethnic groups.

Kairatbek told Amnesty that, while he was interned, he was taken to a “court”, which involved him answering questions similar to those he had answered during previous interrogations. He was not given a sentence, but he said many of his cellmates who appeared before the “court” were. He recounted:

A month or so before I was released, people were taken to ‘courtrooms’ and given sentences… [When I was taken to the courtroom] they just asked me what I had done… I said I had been to Kazakhstan… [The woman presiding over the process] said you need more time [in the camp]. She didn’t give me a sentence… If I’m not mistaken, she was a Uyghur. She had a list of questions… I was good at answering… It was just the two of us, talking in Uyghur… She already had documents about me in front of her… Everyone [in my cell] went to court. Some came back [to the cell] and said they got prison terms. Some were the same as me [and were not given any sentence]… Some of those who did [get sentenced] were then [moved out of the cell]. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Arzu, who was one of the few former detainees Amnesty International interviewed who was temporarily placed in the strict management category and given a yellow badge, said that approximately a year into his time in the camp, several of his cellmates were taken to court and given sentences. “They took people to court. A few days later [those people] got verdicts. The staff in charge [of our cell] came to the cell and read the verdict. We can hear it read,” he said. Arzu provided Amnesty with the full names of two of his cellmates who were sentenced, and said that one was given 15 years for gathering with others and reading a book about religion and the other was given five to seven years for insulting the police and country leaders. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] It is not clear whether the court referred to was a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law, as international law requires. [[[Ref Art 10 UDHR, Art 14(1) ICCPR.]]]

Beibut, who spent nearly a year and a half in different camps, told Amnesty International he was in a class of 50, which was approximately half Uyghurs and half Kazakhs and Hui. He said all the Uyghurs, five Hui, and two Kazakhs were given sentences. “They would read verdicts in class… [One man received] ‘three years for going to a halal restaurant’… [another man received] ‘seven years for having camping equipment or boxing [equipment], because then you were involved in terrorism,” he said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Not everyone who received a guilty verdict was sent to prison. It appears that some sentences were expected to be served in the camp. Two former detainees told Amnesty that people with sentences under 10 years served them in the camp, and that people with punishments over 10 years were sent to prison. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Journalists who have reported on such proceedings have documented similar results. [[[Deutsche Welle (DW), China convicts Uighurs in Sham trials at Xinjiang Camps, 8 June 2020 ]]]

Meryemgul, who said she was sent to a camp for refusing to work for the government, told Amnesty International that officials started giving verdicts to people in her class several months after she arrived in the camp. “[Mine said] that I deserved five to 10 years but that the government was merciful so I didn’t need to go to prison… they said that my sin was going to a country that was on the sensitive country list and not cooperating with the neighbourhood committee.” [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Meryemgul was subsequently released after an appeal from family members abroad.

It is possible that some of the verdicts described by former detainees were actually meant to scare detainees and motivate them to behave more compliantly and accept the “education” they were receiving in the camp. Most former detainees Amnesty interviewed were initially given guilty verdicts, and a few were given prison sentences; however, those sentences were rescinded and none of the former detainees Amnesty interviewed was sent to prison. Because Amnesty International has not been able to speak to anyone who was sent to prison from an internment camp, it is difficult to know whether or how much such individuals’ experience may have differed.

At the very least, camp detainees believed there was a real possibility of being sent to prison on the basis of the verdicts they received. Aitugan told Amnesty that people who received sentences of 10 years or more were sent directly to prison, including three men from his class – two Uyghurs and one Kazakh. He said he was told this secretly by staff in the camp. “Those verdicts over 10 years are directly sent to prison; the family gets the verdict. Those teachers in camp, they talked secretly to us [and told us that people were sent to prison],” he said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Qazir, who was sent to a camp because of his involvement with his local mosque, told Amnesty that one day while in class people were called one by one to another room and told what their verdict was:

People who were religious got [between] two- and 10-year prison terms. The person who was an imam in a mosque in my village was given a seven-year sentence… He told me about the sentence. We were in the same room… Initially I was given three to five years but then they forgave me and I wasn’t given a prison term… They didn’t explain why. Maybe because [a relative] did an appeal for [my release] from Kazakhstan. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Amnesty also interviewed a former government official who was responsible for informing families when their detained family members were given prison sentences. The official said that several government cadres, including one who was allegedly representing the judicial system, would go to the houses of families of people who had been sentenced. “We just read from a piece of paper. There was no [official] stamp or signature. Just the [crimes]… for each person it was different ‘crimes’. [Sometimes] the paper would say that the crime was one of the 75 signs of extremism,” Aiman said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

The accounts of the release process given to Amnesty are consistent with accounts other former detainees have provided to journalists. [[[Deutsche Welle (DW), China convicts Uighurs in Sham trials at Xinjiang Camps, 8 June 2020 ; Gene A. Bunin, Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, “From camps to prisons: Xinjiang’s next great human rights catastrophe,” 5 October 2019 ]]] Testimonies given to journalists refer to “sham trials”, which could lead people to be transferred from the camps to prison. As part of this process, detainees were handed a list of infractions from which they retroactively chose a crime for which they were detained in the camps – likely the 75 manifestations of extremism. Detainees who refused to choose a crime from this list were reportedly threatened with indefinite detention. Journalists have also reported camp detainees being sent to prisons in parts of China outside of Xinjiang. [[[Shohret Hoshur, Radio Free Asia, “China Spiriting Uyghur Detainees Away from Xinjiang to Prisons in Inner Mongolia, Sichuan,” ]]]