Recent satellite imagery in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) appear to show two internment camps separated by a cemetery and crematorium, raising fears that authorities are working to cover up deaths in the facilities.
Bahtiyar Omar, the director of the Norway-based Uyghur Transitional Justice Database (UTJD), provided RFA’s Uyghur Service earlier this week with images from Google Earth Pro that show the construction of camps and associated factories outside of the seat of the XUAR’s Aksu prefecture between 2017 and 2019.
The camps are part of a vast network of similar facilities throughout the XUAR where regional authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since early 2017.
Amid increasing international scrutiny, authorities have begun to send detainees to work at nearby factories as part of an effort to label the camps “vocational centres,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labour conditions.
Based on the imagery provided by Omar, construction on the two camps outside of Aksu—a city of 660,000 people on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert—began in 2017, while the factory facility appeared nearby in 2018.
“These photos are irrefutable proof that that the centres for so-called ‘voluntary re-education’ and ‘vocational education’ in the Uyghur Region are not merely camps that are managed in the style of prisons but also that China’s camp policies have been combined with forced labour from 2018 onward,” Omar told RFA.
Additionally, he pointed out imagery that showed a large cemetery located within a kilometre of the two camps containing a large building and parking lot that were built in the middle of the grounds in 2017.
“[The structure] appears to be several stories, and it’s large in size,” he said. “If a crematorium is located in this building, it does not seem a coincidence that it would be located between two camps.”
Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a leading expert on China’s policies toward Uyghurs, recently tweeted a new satellite image of one of the Aksu camps, which he described as a “100,000sqm internment camp and factory compound” and shows detainees lined up in the yard.
“These pictures of more than 1,000 orange-clad inmates lined up in front of the camp and the factory building are very important evidence of the on-going forced labour in the Uyghur region,” he told RFA in an interview, providing additional context for the images.
Zenz also noted the structure identified by Omar within the nearby cemetery, expressing concern that the existence of a cremation near the camps meant that authorities might be “trying to conceal” deaths in the camps.
Previous reporting by RFA has confirmed that authorities were urgently constructing cremation sites at the same time as they were expanding the camp system in various parts of the XUAR.
Zenz said that while the increase in cremation in the XUAR is, on the one hand, due to the need to dispose of bodies, it is also used to persuade Uyghurs and other minorities to abandon traditional Muslim funeral rites.
“They don’t want any sort of mourning. I think that’s just quite concerning and part of the whole suppression, also the emotional suppression of what’s going on.” (Source: RFA)