In Depth

Four things we learnt from the secret Uighur detention centre footage

Video testimony reveals prisoners subjected to cruel and unhygienic conditions

A collection of videos and photographs secretly sent by a Uighur prisoner to the outside world have provided a rare glimpse inside the Chinese government’s secretive detention camps.

The video, obtained by the BBC, shows former Uighur model Merdan Ghappar, 31, chained to a bed in a prison cell.

China has singled the Uighurs for mass detention, forced labour and torture, with as many as one to 1.8 million of the Muslim ethnic minority estimated to have “disappeared” into what Beijing describes as “re-education” camps.

The new footages reveals “chilling evidence of human rights violations” as “global scrutiny of the situation” in the Xinjiang region continues to grow, The Guardian says. So what does the footage show?

Detentions are arbitrary

Ghappar, a model and former dancer was arrested in 2018 for selling five grams of marijuana and served 16 months in prison. But he was arrested for a second time, allegedly without justification, in January 2020.  

The police that detained him were dispatched from Xinjiang, where Ghappar is registered in the country’s household registry system, and brought him back to the region for “re-registration” and “study”, the BBC says.

According to Ghappar’s testimony, after arriving in the region he was kept in a jail where detainees were made to wear a “four-piece suit” consisting of a head sack, handcuffs, leg shackles and an iron chain connecting the shackles to the cuffs.

“When he complained about how tight the handcuffs were, he said one police officer threatened to beat him to death”, the Independent says. The texts and video footage were originally sent to his friends and family in February 2020. Ghappar has not been heard from since.

Inmates are inundated with propaganda

Ghappar testifies in one message that some of the inmates, including children as young as 13-years-old, are targeted by propaganda to suppress the group’s religion and culture. He also says they are given a document calling on them to “repent and surrender” to China and the Chinese Communist Party.

In the video, propaganda messages being played over loudspeakers can be heard repeating phrases such as “Xinjiang has never been ‘East Turkistan’” in both Mandarin Chinese and the Uighur language.

East Turkistan is a term used by some Uighurs to refer to the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang regions and is also used by separatists, such as the extremist Turkistan Islamic Party, who push for the region to gain independence.

“Separatist forces at home and abroad have politicised this geographical term and called for those who speak Turkic languages and believe in Islam to unite,” another announcement says.

At one point, Ghappar’s points the camera out of the window in his cell to reveal red banners draped across a number of buildings, with text proclaiming “the uprightness and purity of Party conduct” and calling on people to “love China and strive to be in the vanguard”, according to The Globe and Mail.

The eldery and young are tortured

In one text, Ghappar describes conditions of neglect and cruelty meted out by prison guards, including overcrowding during the Covid-19 pandemic, regular beatings and the torture of elderly prisoners and children.

He describes how when he first arrived at the camp, he was locked in a room with a number of other prisoners. “A third of the room was taken up by chairs for the duty cops,” he wrote. “The rest was men on the right, women on the left, divided up and locked in cages.”

He describes hearing the constant sound of screaming coming from elsewhere in the prison, describing how “one time I heard a man screaming from morning until evening”. He also refers to four young men who were brought to the prison and beaten “until they screamed like babies” and “the skin on their buttocks split open”.

Conditions are inhumane

At one point in the video, Ghappar “pans to show a floor covered in dirt and a badly stained wall, before turning the camera to the windows, which are covered in bars”, The Globe and Mail reports.

Ghappar said that in one part of the camp “the carpet was incredibly dirty, with lots of garbage and lice”. 

With Xinjiang currently experiencing a spike in the number of coronavirus infections, “the dirty and crowded conditions... highlight the serious risk of contagion posed by this kind of mass detention”, the BBC reports.

The BBC says it sent “detailed requests for comment” to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Xinjiang authorities, but neither responded.

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