New Report Details Firsthand Accounts Of Torture From Uyghur Muslims In China

Originally published on June 10, 2021 8:00 pm

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.

Earlier this year, the U.S. joined the European Union, the U.K. and Canada in sanctions against China to protest "human rights abuses."

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.

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As President Biden and the other G-7 leaders from some of the world's wealthiest economies prepare to meet for a weekend summit in the English county of Cornwall, one of the biggest attractions is a two-story sculpture that has emerged from the hills nearby. It's a reproduction of the faces of all seven leaders in the style of Mount Rushmore. But instead of stone, the sculptor's material is discarded electronics. And he has named his work Mount Recyclemore. NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is in Cornwall and joins us now. Hey, Frank.


CHANG: Hi. So are you, like, literally next to the sculpture right now? (Laughter) What does it look like?

LANGFITT: It's fascinating. And it's also become this big tourist attraction. There must be 60 or 70 people here staring at it. And what the artist has done is he's basically taken - I'll give you an example. If you look at Boris Johnson, his face is made of old Samsung phone backings.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: And he's got all these old phones that is supposed to be his hair, including all these wires. And then right in front of me is Joe Biden. And Joe Biden's skin basically is all these green circuit boards from inside computers.

CHANG: Whoa.

LANGFITT: And not - you know, just across the bay is where the G-7 is meeting starting tomorrow morning.

CHANG: I'm just amazed that these faces are recognizable.

LANGFITT: Oh, yeah, very recognizable. I mean, everybody can tell exactly who these people are.

CHANG: (Laughter) And what do you take is the sculptor's political point here?

LANGFITT: Well, I think it's a very - it's an environmental point. And I was just talking to him on the phone before you and I started talking. His name's Joe Rush. And this is how he put it.

JOE RUSH: The message is we have to find a way of dealing with this electrical waste that we're producing because we haven't got ways of taking it apart again. We haven't got ways of repairing it. And we haven't got ways of getting rid of it. It's not down to (ph) one nation to give all their waste to another nation. It's a world problem.

CHANG: And how about all the people taking this visual in right now? How are they reacting?

LANGFITT: It's really interesting. I think people are fascinated by it. Obviously, it's - artistically it's very, very interesting. But in terms of the environmental message that Joe was just mentioning, I mean, I think it really resonates with people. I was talking to a woman named Joanie Willett. She teaches politics. And I asked her what struck her the most.

JOANIE WILLETT: For me, it's the Joe Biden circuit boards because those are things that we don't even see. It's totally invisible. And we don't give it any thought when we're using this stuff.

LANGFITT: And people out here are taking pictures - it's very interesting - of people like Boris Johnson's skin of old phones with their own cellphone. So it feels a little bit meta right now.

CHANG: Well, what about the G-7 leaders? Have they said anything about recycling yet?

LANGFITT: They haven't spoken specifically about that. But they are - the environment is a huge issue, and especially climate change because the window is closing on trying to prevent even more damage. And certainly that's going to be a big topic of conversation this weekend.

CHANG: That is NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt joining us from Cornwall, England. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.