Doubt Greets China’s Claim That Muslims Have Been Released From Camps – Smart Media Magazine

Doubt Greets China’s Claim That Muslims Have Been Released From Camps

BEIJING — China said on Tuesday that most of the inmates in its re-education camps for Muslim minorities — a vast network of detention centers estimated to have held one million people or more — have been released.

The announcement appeared intended to blunt growing international condemnation of the camps. But experts and members of targeted Muslim minority groups who have fled abroad quickly contested the claim.

They said there was no evidence of mass releases from the camps across the Xinjiang region in China’s northwest, and that people who had nominally been freed often effectively remained in captivity, including being forced into labor programs instead.

At a news conference in Beijing, two of Xinjiang’s top leaders indicated that the majority of inmates had “returned to society.” The unexpected announcement came after persistent international criticism of the camps, which experts say have come to hold a million or more Uighurs and other ethnic minority Muslims since expanding rapidly in 2017.

“Most have already successfully achieved employment,” he said. “Over 90 percent of the students have returned to society and returned to their families and are living happily.”

Both he and Shohrat Zakir, the government chairman, refused to say how many people have been held in the camps, which are often large clusters of buildings surrounded by fences and guards.

“If the Chinese government is honest and confident in what it’s saying to the media, it should allow people to communicate freely and go out of the country freely and allow independent media to visit and investigate freely,” he said.

Xinjiang is home to more than 11 million Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority, and their treatment has become a global human rights controversy under President Xi Jinping. Western governments, United Nations human rights experts, and advocates of Uighur self-determination have condemned the increasingly harsh restrictions on many Uighurs, especially the re-education camps.

Beyond describing them as vocational training facilities, the Xinjiang officials said the camps offered classes that have effectively inoculated Uighurs against the temptation to embrace religious extremism or terrorism. Until several years ago, Xinjiang had experienced a string of deadly attacks by discontented Uighurs.

But former camp detainees who have left China say they were subjected to a high-pressure indoctrination program with the goal of removing devotion to Islam and instilling loyalty to China and its ruling Communist Party.

The Xinjiang officials’ wording on Tuesday left room for uncertainty as to how much freedom can be exercised by inmates who have been released. Though they did not detail the circumstances under which detainees were being “returned to society,” it is possible that people released in name are in fact still under heavy restrictions.

James Leibold, an associate professor of politics at La Trobe University in Australia who has studied the wave of mass detentions in Xinjiang, said that factories are often linked to the camps, and that inmates assigned to work there live under heavy guard and monitoring.

“I find it highly unlikely, and frankly inconceivable, that the Chinese Communist Party would build this massive network of internment camps and then simply mothball them a couple of years later,” Professor Leibold said by email. “Rather, the purposes of the camps were perhaps always meant to evolve over time, shifting from education to production, while their coercive, nonvoluntary and extrajudicial nature remains the same.”

At the news conference, Mr. Zakir, the regional chairman, also appeared to suggest that people from camps were being assigned factory jobs.

The Chinese government’s assertion that the population in re-education camps is shrinking appeared intended to stave off debate about Xinjiang ahead of a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in September, as well as sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, said Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch. But she said that there was no reason to believe the assertion.

“They lied about the existence of the camps, they admitted the camps existed and lied about what happens inside them,” Ms. Richardson said. “So one has to be awfully skeptical about a claim that — oops! — it’s all sorted out.”

If there have been releases from the camps, that may also reflect the heavy costs on local governments across Xinjiang of operating and guarding the centers, as well as a desire to put more Uighurs to work so that officials can meet the goals set by Mr. Xi, China’s leader, to eradicate poverty by 2020.

But while Chinese officials say most of the Xinjiang detainees have been released, Uighurs abroad continue to report new cases of relatives being detained.

Abdurahman Memet, a Uighur tour guide who lives in the eastern Xinjiang city of Turpan, was detained this month, said his nephew, Muharram Muhammad’ali Baqi, who lives in Japan. The apparent reason for the detention was that he shared a letter from a relative who had been held in a camp with Mr. Baqi.

On Monday, Mr. Baqi said he received a call from a Chinese security official warning him that unless he stopped speaking publicly about the case, his family’s situation would worsen and his father, who is now in prison, would have no chance of release.

“But if I don’t do anything, things may be worse, I think,” Mr. Baqi said.

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