On Monday, December 9, Chinese government chairman of the country’s western Xinjiang region, Shohrat Zakir, claimed that all detainees in this region have been released after “graduating reeducation.” Zakir, told reporters at a press conference that the detainees who were held in the “vocation training centers” for Muslim citizens have completed their course. “With the help of the government, they have realized stable employment and they have improved their quality of life,” said Zakir, who is of Uighur descent.
Zakir added that in future, the training at the vocation training centers would be based on “independent will” and people would have “the freedom to come and go” according to a statement given to Reuters. The chairman did not provide a figure detailing the number of detainees who have been released.
Previous figures of detainees
There are several reports on how many people had been previously detained in the reeducation camps in Xinjiang.
In November this year, a Washington-based group called the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) stated it had assessed images from Google Earth and found 182 suspected “concentration camps” that it listed by coordinates. According to nonprofit Radio Free Asia (RFA), there are 1,300–1,400 internment camps which are believed to have held 1.8 million Uighurs and ethnic Kazakhs since April 2017. In May, an estimate by a top Pentagon official for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, Randall Schriver, claimed that the figure was close to three million citizens – in a region of 10 million people.
A warning by the US
The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, which “calls for sanctions” on targeted Chinese government officials, was passed by the United States House of Representatives last week. The bill was created with the aim to condemn the reported gross human rights violations of ethnic Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, calling for an end to arbitrary detention, torture and harassment of these communities inside and outside China.
The bill would be the toughest international warning sent by the United States in its attempt to pressure China to release the detained Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. According to the bill, those detained in facilities have recounted forced political indoctrination, torture, beatings and food deprivation.
Who was Waris Ababekri?
Just last month, long-time Uighur activist, Waris Ababekri, 53, died within days of being released from an internment camp in Xinjiang. RFA reports he was imprisoned in January after being charged for “a lot of issues.” According to the organization, Ababekri was a co-founder of the Students Cultural Scientist Union at Xinjiang University that had organized a June 1988 student protest in reaction to alleged Chinese discrimination against Uighurs, and which also called for an end to nuclear tests in Xinjiang, democratic elections, and the cessation of mass migration of majority Han Chinese to the region.
“He was expelled from Xinjiang University and was an ex-convict, plus he published articles in magazines that touched on sensitive topics,” says a staff member of China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission in Urumqi. He also claims that Ababekri’s death was not caused by torture but due to a heart attack.
However, according to RFA, Ababekri’s friends have claimed he was in perfect health before being detained. The press agency has reportedly confirmed dozens of cases of deaths in detention or shortly after release since the internment system began. However, it has also added that only a handful of these cases can be directly linked to torture undergone in the internment camps.
The United States has called on China to eradicate the “reeducation” camps, lift all restrictions on human rights, and allow those in China to reestablish connections with their loved ones and associates outside of the country.