Thu, Mar 14, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Xinjiang detention camps may be phased out: governor

Top Uighur official says there will be fewer and fewer students at centers thought to house a million people

By Lily Kuo  /  The Guardian, Beijing

Former camp prisoner Omer Bekali wears chains on Monday as he speaks during a news conference of the Society for Threatened Peoples and the World Congress of the Uyghur people on the theme of re-education camps in China, in Berlin, Germany.

Photo: EPA

Top officials in Xinjiang have hinted that the system of internment centers used to hold a million Muslim minorities may one day be phased out.

Researchers say huge numbers of people, mostly Uighurs, are being held in detention and re-education camps in the far western territory as part of a huge security crackdown in the name of counter terrorism efforts.

Defending their policies at a session of China’s legislative meeting, the National People’s Congress, officials said the camps — which China describes as vocational training centers — would be phased out if no longer needed.

“In general there will be fewer and fewer students in the centers. If one day our society doesn’t need them, the education and training centers will disappear,” said Shohrat Zakir the governor of the region and its most senior Uighur official.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

Zakir’s comments come after months of mounting international criticism, and signal what could be a new phase in China’s campaign in Xinjiang, as the costs prove unsustainable for local governments and a significant portion of the population passes through the camps.

Adrian Zenz, a researcher focused on Xinjiang and Tibet, said: “This statement likely indicates that a large share of the presently detained might be released at some point. It is also a clear indication that the state believes the re-education campaign has been essentially successful.”

According to Zenz, it’s not likely the camps will be phased out entirely. The threat of being sent back to a camp would act as another tool of control.

“I believe [the camps] are part of a long-term plan for social control not just in Xinjiang,” he said.

Detainees are slowly being released from the camps, but remain under house arrest, according to some reports based on accounts from relatives. Other reports say the camps are feeding into a forced labor system where detainees are released but ordered to work in textile factories.

Zakir, in his remarks on Tuesday, said the students were able to earn 1,500 or 2,000 yuan (US$220 to US$300) a month after their training. Accounts from former inmates and their relatives, former and current residents in Xinjiang, government documents, and satellite imagery have painted a picture of what rights advocates say is a worrying state of mass human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Zakir called these depictions of the situation in Xinjiang “purely fabricated” and “very ridiculous.” He said the camps were “like boarding schools,” where students receive free accommodation, skills training, Chinese classes and education in Chinese law.

The students, as the official referred to them, are able to go home on weekends and speak their native languages.

While there are no religious activities in the centers, as stipulated by Chinese regulations, the students are “free to practice their religion after returning home or after graduation,” he said. “We fully respect and protect the religious belief of the students,” he said.

Former detainees have said that they were punished for speaking anything other than Mandarin and that they were not allowed to leave or communicate with their families, accounts that match other media reports.

DETAINING ACTIVISTS

While relatives of those within Xinjiang are becoming more vocal, activists are also coming under pressure. Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent campaigner in Kazakhstan, has been placed under house arrest while awaiting trial for allegedly calling for a “jihad” against the Chinese government.

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