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Chinese authorities have ensnared tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Muslim Chinese – and even foreign citizens – in mass internment camps.
The re-education camps are shrouded in secrecy and operate outside of the legal system.
Prisoners are physically and mentally tortured in efforts to quash religious beliefs and any potential separatist movements.
Muslims were detained for re-education by China’s government and made to eat pork and drink alcohol, according to a former internment camp inmate.
Omir Bekali, one among perhaps a million people reportedly arrested and held in mass re-education camps, said he was detained without trial or access to a lawyer and forced to disavow his beliefs while praising the Communist Party.
Mr Bekali, a Kazakh citizen, said he contemplated suicide after 20 days in the facility – which itself followed seven months in a prison.
Since spring last year authorities in Xinjiang region have confined tens or even hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the camps, including some foreign nationals. One estimate put the figure at a million or more.
A US commission called it the “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today” while a leading historian called it “cultural cleansing”.
When Mr Bekali refused to follow orders each day in the camp, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. A week later, he was sent to solitary confinement, where he was deprived of food for 24 hours, he claimed. After 20 days in the heavily guarded camp, he wanted to kill himself.
The detention campaign has swept across Xinjiang, a territory half the area of India.
Hour upon hour, day upon day, Omir Bekali and other detainees in far western China’s new indoctrination camps had to disavow their Islamic beliefs, criticize themselves and their loved ones and give thanks to the ruling Communist Party.
“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking – your own ethnic group,” said Bekali, who broke down in tears as he described the camp. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”
Shackled for days without end
Bekali knew none of this when he visited his parents on March 25. He passed police checkpoints and handed over his decade-old Chinese identity card.
The next day, five armed policemen showed up at Bekali’s parents’ doorstep and took him away. They said there was a warrant for his arrest in Karamay, a frontier oil town where he lived a decade earlier. He couldn’t call his parents or a lawyer, the police added, because his case was “special.”
Bekali was held in a cell, incommunicado, for a week, and then was driven 500 miles (804 kilometers) to Karamay’s Baijiantan District public security office.
There, they strapped him into a “tiger chair,” a device that clamped down his wrists and ankles. They also hung him by his wrists against a barred wall, just high enough so he would feel excruciating pressure in his shoulder unless he stood on the balls of his bare feet. They interrogated him about his work with a tourist agency inviting Chinese to apply for Kazakh tourist visas, which they claimed was a way to help Chinese Muslims escape.
“I haven’t committed any crimes!” Bekali yelled.
They asked for days what he knew about two dozen prominent ethnic Uighur activists and businessmen in Kazakhstan. Exhausted and aching, Bekali coughed up what he knew about a few names he recognized.
The police then sent Bekali to a 10- by 10-meter (32- by 32-foot) cell in the prison with 17 others, their feet chained to the posts of two large beds. Some wore dark blue uniforms, while others wore orange for political crimes. Bekali was given orange.
In mid-July, three months after his arrest, Bekali received a visit from Kazakh diplomats. China’s mass detention of ethnic Kazakhs – and even Kazakh citizens – has begun to make waves in the Central Asian country of 18 million. Kazakh officials say China detained 10 Kazakh citizens and hundreds of ethnic Kazakh Chinese in Xinjiang over the past year, though they were released in late April following a visit by a Kazakh deputy foreign minister.
Four months after the visit, Bekali was taken out of his cell and handed a release paper.
But he was not yet free.
Chinese officials have largely avoided comment on the camps, but some are quoted in state media as saying that ideological changes are needed to fight separatism and Islamic extremism.
The internment program aims to rewire the political thinking of detainees, *erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities.* The camps have expanded rapidly over the past year, with almost no judicial process or legal paperwork. Detainees who most vigorously criticize the people and things they love are rewarded, and those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings and food deprivation.
Furthermore, Muslims who were detained for re-education by China‘s government were made to eat pork and drink alcohol, according to a former internment camp inmate.
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