This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Three internment camps in one county in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture may be holding nearly 10 percent of the county’s Uyghur residents, according to local authorities, despite recent claims by Chinese officials that such facilities have all been shuttered.
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.
Beginning in October 2018, Beijing acknowledged the existence of the camps, but described them as voluntary “vocational centers,” despite reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service which has found that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
In a July 2019 press conference, XUAR Chairman Shohret Zakir told reporters that more than 90 percent of internees from so-called “vocational training centers” had graduated from their “studies” and been placed into jobs. In later statements, the Chinese authorities claimed that all “centers” 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,” he 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, RFA recently spoke with police officers from Aksu’s Uchturpan (Wushi) county who 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.
Uchturpan is a county consisting of six townships and three “bazaars,” or market centers, and has an official population of around 235,000—more than 90 percent of which is ethnic Uyghur. 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.
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.
‘More than 20,000’
The second camp is “where the old prison at Toqquzbulaq used to be,” the officer said. The camp is located around 1.5 kilometers (slightly less than a mile) 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] center … 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.
The school, which boarded students from throughout Uchturpan county, is also located catty-corner from office of the Uchturpan county government, he said.
According to the officer, a fourth camp at a former police station in Uchturpan’s Imamlirim township—located near a veterinary hospital and a livestock bazaar—is no longer in operation.
“They had people there before, initially, for something like two months, but then they moved them to Uchturpan,” he said, referring to the county seat.
The officer said that he had never taken anyone from his jurisdiction to any of the three operational camps or been present at one of the camps when the family members of detainees were visiting.
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.”
RFA also spoke with a police officer in the seat of Uchturpan who said he was unsure of how many camps remain operational in the county but claimed that the second camp in Toqquzbulaq held “approximately 5,000-6,000” detainees.
The confirmations of operational camps in Uchturpan align with information RFA has received from anonymous sources who said there were formerly six camps in the county but that detainees from three of them were moved to the facilities at Kongtai and the former prison at Toqquzbulaq after the two complexes were expanded in recent years.
In addition to Imamlirim, the two other camps that have been closed were located near the Uchturpan County Party School and the Uchturpan No. 5 Elementary School.
A Uyghur who is originally from Uchturpan, but currently lives in Kazakhstan, told RFA that Kongtai is “a very wide-open valley” located eight villages away from Aksu city.
“In the past they would send people who’d been given the death penalty there,” said the Uyghur, who also declined to be named. “The camp called Kongtai is in the same place.”
They also confirmed that the second camp was located Toqquzbulaq at the site of an old prison outside of the county seat.
“There was a prison there before, from the time I was very small,” they said.
“It wasn’t all that big in the past, though they’ve expanded it in the current situation.”
The third camp, at the former vocational high school, is located at Dongkowruk bazaar, they said.
It was called the Gucheng High School … They turned [Gucheng] into a boarding school where they would bring students from all the villages into the county to study,” the source said, noting it had been “a very large school.”
The Uyghur source said they believe that the Uyghur population of Uchturpan is much larger than statistics show and suggested that “more than 35,000” members of the ethnic group are being held in various forms of detention in the county, including in camps, factories, and prisons.
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 U.S. sanctions, experts believe that China has begun sentencing Uyghurs held in internment camps to prison, providing legal cover to the detentions.