- Ex-inmate Omir Bekali said he spent weeks in a camp in Karamay, Xinjiang
- The camp was meant to strip detainees of their religious belief, he reveals
- Inmates are asked to sing patriotic songs and conduct self-criticism, Bekali said
- He has been telling his story as one of the few survivors able to speak out
A former detainee has told of the horror at China’s re-education camps for Muslims.
Indoctrination starts with early morning patriotic songs and sessions of self-criticism, and often ends with a meal of only pork, according to Omir Bekali, an ethnic Kazakh who said he spent several weeks in a camp in Karamay in Xinjiang before fleeing to Turkey a year ago.
UN experts say China holds one million Muslims in camps in the heavily policed far-west region where most of the country’s ethnic Uyghur, the largest Muslim minority, live. But Beijing has denied the accusations, saying people are attending ‘vocational education centres’ to rid them of any extremist thoughts in a region that was hit by deadly riots and attacks in recent years.
The sites are a kind of ‘campus’, according to China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng speaking last week.
‘Our education and training centres have been set up according to our needs. The students that come in to learn, it’s a dynamic number that changes,’ Shohrat Zakir, the chairman of Xinjiang’s government, told journalists on the sidelines of China’s annual parliamentary meeting last week.
‘As a whole, the number of people in the education centres should be less and less, and if one day society no longer needs it, these education centres can gradually disappear,’ he said, without providing the number of people at the facilities.
For Bekali, the exiled former detainee, the camp was more about trauma than education.
Omir Bekali, a Kazakh who was imprisoned and sent to a re-education camp in China, shows how he was chained during his detention during an interview in his apartment in Istanbul
The institutions had only one objective, he said, to strip detainees of their religious belief.
‘Every morning, at 0700 to 0730, we had to sing the Chinese national anthem. We sang together, 40 or 50 people, facing the wall,’ Belaki told AFP, recalling the scene in his modest Istanbul apartment.
‘I never really wanted to sing, but because of the daily repetition, it sinks in. Even a year later, the music is still resonating in my head,’ he said, adjusting the traditional patterned cap worn by Kazakh men.
Born in Xinjiang to ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh parents, Bekali, like many minorities from China, left for Kazakhstan in 2006 to look for work. There, he got Kazakh nationality.
His troubles began in March 2017 when he was arrested in Xinjiang after he returned on a business trip for his Kazakh travel agency.
After spending seven months in prison on charges of aiding ‘terrorism’, he was sent to a re-education camp.
Among the obligations for detainees of all ages he says was to eat pork on Fridays, which is a holy day for Muslims. Consumption of pork is prohibited by Islam’s religious restrictions.
He said the ‘students’ – as officials called them – were also forbidden to speak a language other than Mandarin and to pray or grow a beard, which authorities interpreted as a sign of religious radicalisation.
Bekali said he was able to leave after nearly two months in the camp, he believes, because of an intervention by Kazakhstan authorities.
The former detainee has been visiting overseas conferences to tell his story as one of the few survivors able to speak out. Most prefer to keep quiet, for fear of endangering their loved ones in China.
Bekali has no news of his parents and his three brothers and sister, who remain in China.
After being released, he left Kazakhstan to settle in Turkey with his wife and children. He said he wanted to ‘put more distance’ between himself and China.
Xinjiang, which shares a border with several countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, has long suffered from violent unrest, which China claims is orchestrated by an organised ‘terrorist’ movement seeking the region’s independence.
It has implemented a massive, high-tech security crackdown, which it says has prevented any violent incidents in over two years.
But many Uighurs and Xinjiang experts say the violent episodes stem largely from spontaneous outbursts of anger at Chinese cultural and religious repression, and that Beijing plays up terrorism to justify tight control of the resource-rich region.
While it previously denied the existence of the camps, Beijing has moved towards acknowledging their existence – but insists they are for ‘vocational education’ and are vital in the fight against separatist sentiments and religious extremism.
It has also gone on a public relations blitz since last October in a bid to counter a global outcry against the camps by inviting diplomats and journalists to tour the centres.
What are China’s Muslim ‘re-education’ camps?
Chinese authorities in the heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang are believed to have ensnared tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Muslim Chinese – and even foreign citizens – in mass internment camps since spring last year.
Such detention campaigns have swept across Xinjiang, a territory half the area of India, leading to what a US commission on China said is ‘the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today’.
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.
Radical Muslim Uighurs have killed hundreds in recent years, and China considers the region a threat to peace in a country where the majority is Han Chinese.
The internment programme aims to rewire the political thinking of detainees, erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities, it is claimed. The camps have expanded rapidly over the past year, with almost no judicial process or legal paperwork.
Detainees who most vigorously criticise the people and things they love are rewarded, and those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings and food deprivation.
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Muslims forced to eat pork, speak Mandarin in China’s re-education camps, former detainee reveals
Source : Dailymail