Hackers expose Chinas camps for Muslims who grew beards or didnt top up phones

Dominic Raab discusses Xinjiang imports

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Dubbed the Xinjiang Police Files, the massive cache of tens of thousands of images and documents reveals shocking details about China’s use of “re-education” camps and formal prisons in its highly secretive system of mass detention of the mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities.

The huge leak contains more than 5,000 police photographs of detained Uyghurs taken between January and July 2018 along with details of a shoot-to-kill policy enforced for those who try to escape.

The documents also reveal how more than 20,000 Uyghurs were imprisoned or interned in camps between 2017 and 2018 on spurious, draconian charges such as growing a beard or failing to top their phone up with credit.

Images show inmates shackled with hoods over their heads and police armed with rifles, riot shields and clubs being trained to subdue detainees.

A set of internal police protocols describes the routine use of armed officers in all areas of the camps as well as mandatory blindfolds, handcuffs and shackles for any detainees or inmates being transferred between facilities or even to hospital.

Documents concerning the positioning of sniper and machine-gun nests in the camps were also included in the files, which were shared with a consortium of journalists including the BBC earlier this year.

The BBC spent months verifying the information before publishing it on Tuesday, May 24.

The release of the files coincides with the arrival of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, in China on Monday to investigate reported rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.

The long-awaited ‘fact-finding mission’ comes amid fears that Beijing will seek to tightly control the visit to prevent scrutiny of its treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in the northwestern region.

The documents were leaked by a hacker who claimed to have taken them from Chinese police computer servers before handing them to US-based academic Dr Adrian Zenz of the US-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who has been sanctioned by China for his research on Xinjiang.

Dr Zenz then shared the documents with the BBC which said it has contacted the source directly and substantiated a large portion of the data.

The leak provides some of the strongest evidence to date of the Chinese government’s policy of targeting almost any expression of Uyghur identity, culture or Islamic faith. 

It also disputes the government’s claim that the re-education camps built across Xinjiang since 2017 are nothing more than “schools” by outlining internal police instructions and guarding rosters. 

At least 2,884 of the 5,000 Uyghurs pictured in the files were detained in either prisoners or re-education camps in the region.

The youngest was Rahile Omer, who was just 15 years old at the time of her detention, while the eldest was 73-year-old Aniham Hamit.

One individual, 68-year-old Tursun Kadir, was sentenced to 16 years and 100 months in jail for the crime of “growing a beard under the influence of religious extremism”.

Another, Yusup Ismayil, 45, was jailed for travelling to a “sensitive country” – reported by the BBC to be a Muslim-majority country.

60-year-old Tajigual Tahir was incarcerated due to her son being suspected of having “strong religious leanings” because he did not drink or smoke, highlighting the widespread use of “guilt by association”. 

Tahir appeared on a list of “relatives of the detained”, among thousands of others placed under suspicion because of the “crimes” of their families. 

Her son was jailed for 10 years on terrorism charges. 

Hundreds more people were detained for listening to “banned lectures” or installing encrypted apps on their phones.

Other charges include allowing their phones to run out of credit, “picking quarrels” or “disturbing social order”.

There are countless examples of people being punished retrospectively for “crimes” committed years or even decades earlier, with one man jailed for 10 years in 2017 for having “studied Islamic scripture with his grandmother” for a few days in 2010. 

Husband and wife Tursun Memetimin and Ashigul Turghun were sent to a detention centre in 2018 for having listened to a banned lecture on someone else’s mobile phone six years earlier, in 2012.

Police files contain photos of two of their three children – daughters Ruzigul, 10, and Ayshem, six – whose fates are unknown.

China has been accused of forcibly separating children from their detained parents.

The files also reveal the mass surveillance of Uyghurs, with some 452 spreadsheets included in the hack containing the names, ID numbers and addresses of more than a quarter of a million Uyghurs being watched by the government.

Classified speeches by Communist Party officials also seem to confirm that the responsibility for the crackdown lies with President Xi Jinping himself.

One speech delivered by Zhoa Kezhi, China’s Minister for Public Security, on a visit to Xinjiang in 2018, praises Xi for “important instructions” and funding to build camps and detention centres to cope with an influx of detainees.

In another part of the speech, he suggests that up to 2 million Uyghurs may harbour “extremist thought” and need to be processed in the camps.

Another speech by Communist Party secretary Chen Quangup suggests a five-year time frame for re-education in the camps.

None of the hacked documents are dated after the end of 2018, possible due to a directive issued in early 2019 tightening Xinjiang’s encryption standards which could have placed more recent files beyond the reach of the hacker. 

Analysis of the data by Dr Zenz showed that in a single county in Xinjiang – Shufu – a total of more than 22,762 residents were either in a camp or a prison in the years 2017 to 2018, accounting for more than 12 percent of the adult population. 

If applied to Xinjiang as a whole, the figure would mean the detention of more than 1.2 million Uyghur and other Turkic minority adults, in keeping with the broad range of estimates made by Xinjiang experts. 

The UN has accused China of locking up an estimated one million or more members of the Uyghur, Kazakh and other Muslim minorities in the region in what has been described by the United States and a number of other western countries as “genocide”.

Rights groups have accused China’s ruling Communist Party of waging a campaign to obliterate the minority groups’ distinct cultural identities.

Activists say China has violated human rights “on a scope and scale unimaginable” since the then-UN high commissioner Louise Arbour’s last visit 17 years ago.

Alleged abuses include forced labour, forced sterilisation and arbitrary detention of over one million Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups in what the UN has called “counter-extremism camps” in Xinjiang.

Rights groups have raised concerns that Chinese authorities will prevent Bachelet from conducting a thorough probe into alleged rights abuses.

The US has said it is “deeply concerned” that the UN had not secured guarantees on what Ms Bachelet will see, adding that she was unlikely to get an “unmanipulated” picture of China’s rights situation.

Speaking on Friday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price echoed the call of nearly 200 human rights groups for the high commissioner to release her report on alleged abuses in Xinjiang, which has been delayed for years. 

He said: “The high commissioner’s continued silence in the face of indisputable evidence of atrocities in Xinjiang and other human rights violations and abuses throughout the P.R.C [People’s Republic of China]. … is deeply concerning, particularly as she is and should be the leading UN voice on human rights.”

Caroline Wilson, the UK’s Ambassador to China, who joined a virtual meeting with Ms Bachelet on Monday, said she stressed “the importance of unfettered access to Xinjiang and private conversations with its people”.

Ms Wilson wrote on Twitter: “There is no excuse for preventing UN representatives from completing their investigations.”

When approached for comment about the hacked data, a statement from the Chinese Embassy in Washing DC said: “Xinjiang related issues are in essence about countering violent terrorism, radicalisation and separatism, not about human rights or religion”.

It added that the Chinese authorities had taken “a host of decisive, robust and effective deradicalisation measures”. 

The Chinese government has consistently denied claims of coercion in the camps, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi stating in 2019: “The truth is the education and training centres in Xinjiang are schools that help people free themselves from extremism”. 

There are 380 suspected facilities in the Xinjiang region, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, with more than 60 sites worked upon between July 2019 and July 2020 despite China’s claim that it has scaled down its use of the camps.

Fourteen camps were still under construction when the report was released in 2020, indicating that China is still expanding their use.

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