“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


Survivor accounts of torture and other ill-treatment

Amnesty International interviewed numerous former camp detainees who were tortured or subjected to other ill-treatment during interrogations or punishments. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] 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. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Three other former detainees reported being punished in rooms with multiple tiger chairs. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

17 former detainees told Amnesty they were interrogated or punished in a tiger chair or other metal chair. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] 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. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Daulet, who was detained for an offence related to the practice of Islam, told Amnesty International that during the year he spent in an internment camp he was taken to punishment rooms twice, where he was immobilized in a tiger chair. The first time was for making his bed too early in the morning. The second time he was taken along with the rest of his cellmates; they were punished collectively because one member of the cell had spoken in Kazakh.

[The first time] I was taken I was on ‘night duty’ with an old Hui man. It was morning. We thought it was time to start making the beds. Then, on the loudspeaker, someone said it wasn’t time to start making the beds. Then [two guards] came into the room and took [the two of us who were on duty] to the [punishment] room. The room had eight [tiger] chairs. We were there for maybe five hours. We did not have water. There was no food. And no toilet. They opened the window. It was very cold. We stayed strapped in the chair. The chair is metal, and we were cuffed with arms straight out. Our legs were cuffed… The second time, there was a guy [in my cell] who spoke in Kazakh. And the guards asked him if he spoke in Kazakh. And he said ‘no’. And then they took [everyone in the cell] to the tiger chair. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Assel, an older woman who spent a year in the camp without ever being given a firm reason for her detention – although she believes it was because she had gone to Kazakhstan – was taken to a punishment room because she had argued with a cellmate after trying to defend another woman who was hard of hearing and was being verbally abused. She described being taken by two female guards to a small, dark, cold, and windowless room in the basement of the camp, where she was handcuffed and shackled and made to sit in an iron chair for days:

Two women took me to the room. They held me under my arms. They told me to sit in an iron chair… [They] cuffed my arms and legs… My hands were cuffed to each other, not to the chair… [I was taken because] there was a woman [in my cell] who couldn’t hear well. And there was another Uyghur woman [in the cell] who used to call her names. I said [to the Uyghur woman], ‘Why are you taking advantage of her? You shouldn’t do that!’ [Then an argument started.] Then the guards came [in the cell] and asked us what happened, and they took me to this room… It was a dark room. No toilet in it. Just a bucket… There was no bed, just a chair. They brought one piece of bread and water. I was getting pretty cold. I started shouting that I was getting cold… My hands and legs were cuffed [to the chair]… They told me I would be there for five days. [But] the following day they took my cuffs off and brought food. And [the guard] watched through the door and told me to eat. But I was cold and couldn’t eat… I was there for three days. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Detainees told Amnesty International they were sent to punishment rooms multiple times. Mansur, a farmer, described to Amnesty how he was tortured multiple times in two camps during his time in detention – both during an interrogation and during multiple punishment sessions. He described his interrogation session:

That day two guards came to my cell. They said I would be interrogated. I stuck my hands out through the hole in the wall [door] and they cuffed me [from the other side of the door]… [I could hear] the guards talking on the walkie-talkie saying that ‘Guobao is waiting’… Two guards took me from the cell and dropped me off [at the room where I was interrogated]. Two men were inside. They locked the door from inside. The guards were in uniform but the plainclothes [Guobao officers] interrogated me… They started asking about personal information, ethnicity, date of birth, when I went to Kazakhstan, my occupation… [They asked,] ‘Did you pray there? What do your parents do?’ I said I only stayed with family, that I took care of livestock, and that I didn’t do anything illegal… they asked me about mosque and praying… If I told them I had been praying, I had heard that I would get sentenced for 20 or 25 years. So I told them I never prayed. Then they became upset. They said, ‘All that time with livestock, you became an animal too!’ Then they hit me with a chair until it broke… I fell to the floor. I almost fainted… Then they put me on the chair again. They said, ‘this guy hasn’t changed yet, he needs to stay [in the camp] longer’… then they radioed the guards, who helped me back to the cell. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

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. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Mansur also described two of the punishment rooms, one of which had 20 tiger chairs.

You can see the chair across from you, but not beside you because there are [wooden] dividers [that go to the ceiling]… Above every tiger chair there is a camera and microphone and a small white light. The light is on the ceiling. Lights are dim… There is a window but no light. The window is close to the ceiling. It is very narrow… Everything was white. The walls, floors, ceilings. All new… It is in the basement where we live… There were several other people [in the room] but I could not see [most of] them. There was one guy in front of me. I could see him. The other guy [in front of me] was punished for using his Kazakh mother tongue… We talked to each other. We had to talk in Chinese. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Auelbek also described being punished and sent to a place with numerous tiger chairs – in this case they were in a corridor of a building in the camp:

I was punished once… In class I raised my hand and asked a question, then [the teacher] threw a plastic ruler at me and said, ‘Why do you speak!’… then [the teacher] said to the guards to take me to the tiger chair… They tied my hands and legs to the chair… I was lucky [because I wasn’t there for too long]… There were 10–15 chairs… It wasn’t a real room; it was part of a corridor… There were partitions between the chairs, like in a public toilet. You could not see the chair beside you… There was another person in front of me [who I could see]… When the guard left, I asked the man in front of me how long he had been there. He said 24 hours. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

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. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

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. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Electric batons were often used to electrocute and beat people. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Madi told Amnesty how he was beaten shortly after arriving at the camp when he resisted being strip-searched by guards:

When I said I wouldn’t take off my underwear they beat me with an electric baton. And then I fell. They beat me and I was electrocuted… When I came to my senses, they took off my clothes, they searched me, made me bend down, tied my hands behind my neck. It was very painful. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Amir told Amnesty he was severely beaten after fighting back against a guard who hit him with a rifle:

[One of the guards] said, ‘Squat and put your hands on the back of your head!’… I asked why. Then the police hit me with the back of a rifle… I wanted to protect myself, so I hit back. He fell down. Then the other police all hit me. When I was being beaten up, I heard one voice saying, ‘End him with one bullet’… I thought I was going to die… I wanted not to be killed and I screamed… Then they sprayed something in my eyes so I couldn’t open them… Then I was dragged [to my cell]. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Two former detainees reported having their legs shackled during part of their time in detention. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Rustam told Amnesty his legs were shackled for 15 days after he was initially detained. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Baurzhan told Amnesty his feet were shackled together for the first year he was in a camp.

It was a metal chain with 11 links. The two ends were on my feet with bolts. [It weighed about] 3kg. We could barely step 20cm or more. I could barely walk. It was on 24/7. Every week the guards would check the chain. Every two weeks they would tighten the bolts… [Several months after I arrived in the camp] they offered us water for showering, but always with the chain on. The old inmates showed us how to take your pants off. We took our pants off through the space between the chain and ankle, but it takes a really long time. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Three former detainees told Amnesty International that they were sprayed with something, likely pepper spray, while they were in the camps. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Amir told Amnesty he was sprayed with something while being interrogated twice while immobilized in a tiger chair. “I was taken [from my cell] to another room and seated in a tiger chair… they didn’t ask me anything. They sprayed something in the air that made it difficult to breathe. [The spray] was small, like [the size] of a bottle of pills. You could put it in your pocket,” he said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Madi told Amnesty that guards used to spray a white substance, which he believed was pepper spray, into his cell frequently – multiple times a day – which made his throat sore and made it difficult to breathe. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Journalists and human rights organizations have reported more than a dozen first-hand accounts of torture and other ill-treatment in the camps in Xinjiang. [[[For other accounts of torture and other ill-treatment see; Human Rights Watch, Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, 9 September 2018 ; Robin Schmitz, NPR, “Ex-Detainee Describes Torture In China’s Xinjiang Re-Education Camp,” 13 November 2018 ; Christopher Connell, Share America, “A tale of torture in a Chinese internment camp for Uyghurs,” ; Steve Chao, Al Jazeera, “Exposed: China’s surveillance Muslim Uighurs,” ; See also Xinjiang Victims Database entries: “Kairat Samarkan” ; “Mihrigul Tursun” ; “; ; ; “Abduhebir Rejep” ; “Ergali Ermek”, ; ; “Zharqynbek Otan” ; “Qaster Musahan” ; “Gulzira Auelhan” ; “Tursunay Ziyawudun” ]]] Journalists have also reported deaths in internment camps. [[[Shohret Hoshur, Radio Free Asia, “At Least 150 Detainees Have Died in One Xinjiang Internment Camp: Police Officer,” 29 October 2019 ]]]