Uyghur detainees from internment camps in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being secretly transferred to prisons in Henan province, in addition to other parts of the country, according to sources.
In October last year, RFA’s Uyghur Service reported that authorities in the XUAR had begun covertly sending detainees to prisons in Heilongjiang province and other parts of China to address an “overflow” in overcrowded camps, where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
And in recent months, RFA spoke to officials in Shandong, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces, who confirmed that Uyghur and other Muslim detainees from the XUAR had been sent to prisons there, although they were unable to provide specific numbers or dates for when they had been transferred.
As global condemnation over the camp network has grown, including calls for international observers to be allowed into the XUAR to investigate the situation there, reports suggest that authorities may be transferring detainees to other parts of China as part of a bid to obfuscate the scale of detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region.
While investigating the transfer of detainees, RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with a former internee at a facility in the XUAR’s Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture named Memettursun Osman, who said that several of his cellmates were taken to Henan, often in twos or threes.
“Some people among us received orders to be transferred to Henan,” he said, including an imam who was being held with him in May 2017.
“If you received the order, you would be transferred immediately—within two hours or by the following morning, at the latest. [The imam’s] name was Ablimit Abudumijit, a man in his 50s. He was given his orders in our presence and taken away two hours later.”
Osman said that authorities would “always take people out in twos or threes.”
“When I was brought in, there were about 64 people in my cell, but they were always taking people out,” he said.
“After I arrived, seven or eight people were given orders to be transferred to either Henan or Gansu. From what I learned, Chinese police moved most of the inmates with sentences of more than 15 years to Henan and other parts of the country. They started doing this very early on, not just after reports of the camps came out in 2017.”
Osman said he had seen printed orders given to inmates that said they were being sent to Henan.
“When you are called, you show [the guard] your order and leave the cell. The paper was similar to a court order and were given out in front of everyone,” he said.
“The orders were written in Chinese—there was no effort to try to conceal it.”
RFA spoke with several officials in Henan who said that detainees from the XUAR had been sent there, although they could not provide specific details about how many had been sent there or when.
When asked to describe the situation, a Han Chinese official from the Municipal Prison Administration in Xinyang—a prefectural-level city in Henan—asked whether an RFA reporter was referring to “the inmates transferred to Xinyang from the XUAR,” before deferring further questions to “relevant offices.”
A staff member at the Provincial No. 4 Prison in Henan’s city of Luoyang told RFA that the number of detainees sent to his facility was “a national secret,” and would only reveal information in response to an official request.
An official who answered the phone at the Henan Provincial Prion Administration told RFA that a “Specialist Department” was responsible for transferring detainees from the XUAR to Henan, but provided no further details.
But a second official at the same office confirmed that detainees from the XUAR are routinely sent to Henan and that they are administered “in a particular way.”
“Of course … they are terrorists,” he said, without elaborating.
“If you want to investigate, you should come here in person,” he added.
Bitter Winter report
The confirmation from officials in Henan followed a report earlier this week by Bitter Winter, a website launched by the Italian research center CESNUR that focuses on religion in China, which cited a source in a prison in the province where detainees from the XUAR have been transferred as saying that Uyghurs there are “isolated from other prisoners,” and that “most are held in solitary confinement and frequently beaten.”
“These Uyghurs are separately held in so-called ‘high-risk prison areas,’ with handcuffs and shackles 24/7,” the source said, adding that prison guards can “shoot anyone regarded as disobedient at any time.”
“These Uyghurs will spend the rest of their lives in jail without being tried, sentenced, or convicted. They are doomed to die in prison.”
The website, which routinely publishes photos and video documenting human rights violations submitted by citizen journalists from inside China, cited a second source as saying that before the Uyghurs were transferred, the prison underwent “intensive transformations”—from equipment to changes in rules—and that guards had received specialized training and were increased in number.
Bitter Winter previously cited sources as saying that prisons in Inner Mongolia have also accepted camp detainees from the XUAR, and that authorities plan to disperse and detain “an estimated 500,000 Uyghur Muslims” throughout China, although these reports could not be independently confirmed by RFA.
Call for accountability
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region.
Last week, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, Pompeo called the internment camps in the XUAR “one of the worst human rights crises of our time” and “truly the stain of the century.”
Vice President Mike Pence also slammed the camps “where [Uyghurs] endure around-the-clock brainwashing” and survivors have described their experience as “a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.”
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently told RFA in an interview that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.
The U.S. Congress has also joined in efforts to halt the incarcerations, debating legislation that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network, and the security threats posed by the crackdown.