Amnesty International: Chinese Concentration Camp Victims Endured Months of Torture

This photo taken on June 2, 2019 shows buildings at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center, believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Kashgar in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. - As many as one million ethnic Uighurs and other …
GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Amnesty International (AI) on Thursday published an extensive report on the concentration camps China has constructed to imprison the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang province.

Using information gathered from 2019 to mid-2021, AI produced what it described as “the most comprehensive account ever of life inside the internment camps,” providing substantial evidence for accusing the Chinese government of “imprisonment, torture, and persecution.”

The AI report includes grim firsthand accounts of life in the camps from survivors, which was compiled into a portrait of daily life for the detainees. The Chinese government claims the camps are vocational schools that teach the Uyghur Muslims valuable skills so they can live more productive lives. When critics noted that vocational academies are not normally surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire, Chinese officials tried calling them “boarding schools.”

The reality described by AI’s report bears no resemblance to even the toughest of vocational academies, as it included a “ceaseless indoctrination campaign as well as physical and psychological torture,” harsh punishment for resistance, a complete lack of privacy – even in the toilets – insufficient “food, water, exercise, healthcare, sanitary and hygienic conditions, fresh air, and exposure to natural light,” and mandatory recitation of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda.

Uyghur detainees were subjected to numerous techniques recognized as physical and psychological torture by the international community, including being forced to hold stress positions, beatings, electric shocks, unlawful and agonizing restraints, solitary confinement, exposure to extremes of temperature, brainwashing, and being forced to write “confessions” of guilt. 

A major focus of camp indoctrination was breaking the Uyghurs’ faith in their Islamic religion and converting them into communist zealots. The detainees were forced to monitor and report on each other and beaten merely for speaking their own language.

Contrary to the Chinese government’s claims that most of the concentration camp inhabitants enrolled voluntarily to receive training in useful job skills, AI’s interviews revealed Uyghurs were dragged from their homes and imprisoned arbitrarily, without even the minimal protections that would have been afforded by China’s totalitarian “criminal justice system.” 

Many detainees said they had no idea what “crimes” they stood accused of until they were forced to sign “confessions” shortly before they were released. Their “crimes” frequently involved merely traveling abroad, communicating with foreigners, or using forbidden smartphone apps. Some were never told what they allegedly did to deserve incarceration.

A common Chinese tactic involved arresting Uyghurs for failing to file required paperwork after they changed address, as in the case of children who grew up and moved out of their family homes. The Uyghurs detained for such bureaucratic “crimes” told AI they did not know they were breaking the law just by changing their residence. Many other detainees said Chinese authorities arrested them after explicitly giving them permission to do what they were arrested for, such as traveling to different parts of China.

Inmates at the camps were kept in overcrowded cells with bunk beds, or even communal beds where they slept “shoulder to shoulder.” The prisoners were often forced to sleep head-to-toe, to ensure they could not speak to each other. The cell doors were equipped with chains that forced the detainees to crawl “one by one, like dogs” when they were allowed to leave. Every moment of their lives was tightly regulated and closely monitored.

“It was like a prison,” one detainee said. “You got up at 5 a.m. and had to make your bed, and it had to be perfect. Then there was a flag–raising ceremony and an ‘oath–taking.’ Then you went to the canteen for breakfast. Then to the classroom. Then lunch. Then to the classroom. Then dinner. Then another class. Then bed.”

“Bed” did not necessarily mean rest, as detainees explained how inmates were required to stay awake and monitor each other for two hours out of every night. This “night duty” sometimes involved moving people’s heads or adjusting their bedding if the guards felt they were not clearly visible to security cameras while they were sleeping. The cell lights were always on, and loudspeakers frequently barked at the inmates, so no one actually got much sleep.

One of the prisoners interviewed by AI recalled taking the last shift for “night duty” with an elderly fellow prisoner and getting harshly punished by the guards for attempting to make the beds. He and the old man wound up chained to metal “tiger chairs,” a favorite Chinese Communist torture device that forces the victim to sit in a painful hunched position, for five hours without food, water, or toilet breaks. 

Other survivors recounted being chained to tiger chairs for 24 hours at a stretch, or hung from walls, for infractions as minor as asking a question in “class.” The larger concentration camps have “punishment rooms” with 20 or more tiger chairs where entire cell populations could be tortured at once.

Several survivors told AI they were forced to sit in stress positions on stools for 16 hours a day and do nothing at all until their Chinese jailers decided it was time for their “lessons” to begin. This period of their incarceration would sometimes last for months, even for elderly prisoners who could not endure the torment. Even after indoctrination sessions began, detainees said they were frequently required to sit unmoving for hours at a time.

As AI pointed out, release from the camps did not mean freedom for the Uyghurs because Xinjiang province has become a nightmare of perpetual surveillance and pervasive Communist indoctrination. Families were told their loved ones would only be released from the concentration camps if they behaved themselves. Many of those families found Han Chinese men were sent to live with them and monitor their activities.

Even after release, camp veterans said they were required to keep writing “confession and self-criticism” letters, attend indoctrination classes, and attend Chinese Communist flag-raising ceremonies where they were forced to “confess” their crimes, declare their loyalty to the Communist Party, and praise the concentration camp system. 

Han Chinese living in Xinjiang are pointedly exempted from all of these activities. “They laugh at us,” one Uyghur said.

As AI noted, it was extremely difficult to compile the testimonials presented in its report, because “the government of China threatens, detains, tortures, and forcibly disappears individuals who speak publicly about the human rights situation in Xinjiang.”

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