Three internment camps in Uchturpan, a county in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) Aksu prefecture are believed to hold almost 10% of the county’s Uyghur residents, according to local authorities, despite Chinese officials’ claim such facilities have all been shut down.
Uchturpan consists of six townships and has an official population of around 235,000 but nearly 20,000 of its Uyghur residents are detained in three internment camps.
Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of camps since April 2017.
According to one Uyghur village police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal, the largest of Uchturpan’s three operational camps is in a place known as “Kongtai,” located at the base of a mountainous area of the county.
“I think they call the No. 1 center Kongtai … Yes, the largest internment camp [in the county]is this one,” he said, adding that there are “more than 10,000” people held there.
The second camp is “where the old prison at Toqquzbulaq used to be,” the officer said. The camp is located around 1.5 kilometres from the county seat, he said, and around 5,000 people are being held there.
The third camp is “in a vocational [high]school that was converted into a [detention]centre … directly across the street from the Bureau of Public Security,” he added, although he said he was unsure of how many people are being held there.
When asked how many people are held in the three operational camps in total, the officer said he was unsure, “but I would estimate that it’s more than 20,000.”
Beginning in October 2018, Beijing acknowledged the existence of the camps, but described them as voluntary “vocational centres,” despite reports which has found that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions and forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
In a July 2019 press conference, XUAR Chairman Shohret Zakir told reporters that more than 90% of internees from so-called “vocational training centres” had graduated from their “studies” and been placed into jobs.
In later statements, the Chinese authorities claimed that all “centres” had been closed.
Last week in Paris, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated the claim that all those sent to the camps have been released and placed in employment.
“The rights of all trainees in the education and training program, though their minds have been encroached by terrorism and extremism, have been fully guaranteed,” Wang said during a conference at the French Institute of International Relations.
“Now all of them have graduated, there is no one in the education and training center now. They all have found jobs.”
However, the police officer recently interviewed by RFA directly contradicted the claims, not only confirming that at least three camps are still in operation in the county but estimating that together they are likely to hold more than 20,000 detainees.
If the estimates are correct, the number of detainees in the three camps would account for nearly 10 percent of the county’s Uyghur residents.
Reports of the continued operations of the camps in Uchturpan come a week after Buzzfeed said it had used satellite imagery to identify 268 structures built in the XUAR since 2017 “bearing the hallmarks of fortified detention compounds,” noting that there was “at least one in nearly every county” in the region.
Amid international condemnation and US sanctions, experts believe that China has begun sentencing Uyghurs held in internment camps to prison, providing legal cover to the detentions. (Source: RFA)