The plight of the Muslim Uighurs in China has triggered a heated debate. Photo: iStock
The plight of the Muslim Uighurs in China has triggered a heated debate. Photo: iStock

Solitary confinement, handcuffed and forced to stand in a 2×2 meters, or a 13-square-foot, cell for 24 hours. News is trickling out from Xinjiang, a province in northwest China, of human rights violations against the Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority.

In a 117-page report released on Monday and entitled Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, Human Rights Watch has called for the international community to impose sanctions on the world’s second-largest economy.

Up to one million Muslims have reportedly been detained, according to estimates from the non-governmental organization based in New York, the United Nations and United States government officials.

“I resisted their measures,” Nur, a former detainee in a political education camp, told Human Rights Watch.

“They put me in a small solitary confinement cell … In a space of about 2×2 meters, I was not given any food or drink, my hands were handcuffed [behind my] back, and I had to stand for 24 hours without sleep,” Nur, which is not the person’s real name because of fears of reprisals, added.

Four years ago, the Chinese government launched its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism” in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch reported.

But the level of “repression increased dramatically” after the Tibet Autonomous Region Communist Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo, moved to take control of Xinjiang in 2016, it claimed.

These allegations have been denied by Beijing.

‘Completely untrue’

“The argument that one million Uighurs are detained in re-education centers is completely untrue,” Hu Lianhe, a senior official of China’s Communist Party, told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. “There are no such things as re-education centers.”

Still, Human Rights Watch and the UN point to mounting evidence of a sprawling network of extrajudicial internment camps, where prisoners are subject to political and cultural indoctrination.

Security outside the restricted areas in Xinjiang has also tightened and now bears “a striking resemblance to those inside,” Maya Wang, a researcher for the NGO in Hong Kong, confirmed from interviews with former residents now living abroad.

“The Chinese government is committing human rights abuses on a scale unseen in the country in decades,” Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said.

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In response, Beijing has insisted that Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists.

Last month, Kaiser Abdukerim, a member of the Chinese delegation and president of Xinjiang Medical University, told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that “social stability in the region” was paramount.

During the same two-day meeting in Geneva, Gay McDougall, who sits on the committee, cited harrowing reports before voicing concerns that Beijing had “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp.”

Former inmates have painted a grim picture of human rights abuse.

Many faced months of indoctrination, and were forced to renounce Islam, criticize their own beliefs and recite Communist Party propaganda songs for hours each day.

‘Mass incarceration’

The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China has even described the situation as “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

“They give a signal, that even if you’re in a foreign country, they can ‘manage’ you … I’m scared … I [have never belonged to a] terrorist [group] or any organization against China,” Murat, 37, a student living outside China and whose sister is in a political re-education camp, told Human Rights Watch.

“I didn’t join any demonstrations. I didn’t carry an East Turkestan flag. I have no criminal record in China … Why are they doing stuff like that [to me]?” Murat, which is not his real name because of the threat of reprisals, added.

To combat what many have described as a ‘lockdown’ of the Xinjiang autonomous region, Human Rights Watch would like to see “targeted sanctions” rolled out.

Indeed, Michelle Bachelet, the new head of the UN Human Rights Council, has called on China to allow monitors into the country following “deeply disturbing” allegations.

Yet it is unlikely that Beijing will be opening up “2×2-meter” cells to the rest of the world any time soon.

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