According to a new report from Amnesty International published Thursday, the Chinese government’s actions against people in Muslim minority groups in the country constitute crimes against humanity. The report details systematic state-organized mass imprisonment, torture and persecution against people in Xinjiang province, including Uyghurs and Kazakhs. It also details the extensive cover-up efforts by the Chinese government.
More than 50 people who’ve been detained in camps contributed testimonies to Amnesty International’s report, and every single one of them said they were tortured or otherwise mistreated.
The United Nations has said that up to 1.5 million Uyghurs are in internment camps in China. Speaking to NPR’s Weekend Edition last year, Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, called it probably the largest incarceration of an ethnoreligious minority since the Holocaust and said the effort meets the U.N.’s definition of genocide.
NPR’s All Things Considered spoke to Jonathan Loeb, the senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International and the report’s lead author, about safely conducting interviews with former camp detainees, the way this report proves that torture is endemic to these internment camps and about the eradication of Islamic religious practices in China. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for a transcript of the interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ailsa Chang: So this report, if I’m not mistaken, it is the largest compilation of firsthand accounts from people who have been detained in Xinjiang. Is that correct?
Jonathan Loeb: Yes. Despite the fact that at least hundreds of thousands of people have been sent to internment camps over the past four years and millions of Muslims in Xinjiang have been affected by the situation there, there are very few people who’ve been able to get out of the country and speak publicly about this issue. What Amnesty has tried to do over the past 18 months is to identify and contact other people who have been able to get out of Xinjiang, but have been unwilling, for security reasons, to speak out publicly before. So we put a lot of time and effort into tracking down 55 former detainees from the camps who had not spoken out previously. And we made sure that we could conduct these interviews in a way that is over secure channels and is done as safely for them as possible.
Now, reports of these detainment camps and the mass surveillance of those who are outside of these camps who live in Xinjiang first started surfacing about four years ago. So tell me, what are the most important new details that this report adds to our overall understanding of what’s been happening in Xinjiang?
Our report augments that existing evidence; it does not duplicate it. So these are new testimonies and they provide an incredible amount of new detail, unfortunately, about the terrible things that are going on in the camps. We have concluded that every person who is sent to an internment camp experiences torture or other ill treatment, both as a result of the cumulative effects of daily life in the camps and as a result, many of them experienced physical torture during interrogations and punishments during their time in the camp.
And may I ask, is there any particular detail that has most stayed with you?
Yes, unfortunately, about 17 or 18 of the former detainees who Amnesty interviewed were interrogated and physically tortured while immobilized in tiger chairs, essentially steel chairs where your hands and your feet are affixed to the chair and you’re completely immobilized.
Now, the Chinese government has long said that it is focusing on this population because of the “terrorism threat” that this region presents to the government. We should note that there have been reports noting that thousands of Uyghurs had gone to fight for ISIS in Syria. Is there some reason for concern, even though what’s happening in Xinjiang is absolutely deplorable?
Every government has the right to respond in accordance with international law to any legitimate threats of terrorism. But what we have here is a campaign to target an entire people based solely off of their religion and their culture.
Well, one of the longest lasting effects, as you say, may be the loss of culture. People are being punished for speaking their native languages instead of Mandarin Chinese; people are being tortured for carrying even just religious themed images; women are being sterilized. What do you think the future of these minority Muslim populations in China could look like?
It’s not only the future that’s extraordinarily bleak, it’s the present. A lot of what we’re talking about here has already occurred. Numerous traditions that are essential to the practice of Islam — whether that’s praying, attending mosques, teaching religion, wearing religious clothing, giving children Islamic sounding-names — are now, in effect, prohibited. And as a result, in order to survive, Muslims in Xinjiang have modified their behaviors in a way that did not allow them to engage in religious practice anymore.