In Xinjiang’s vast network of re-education camps, the daily horror of internment was infused with monotony, boredom even: countless hours spent on small stools enduring indoctrination and language classes or TV propaganda broadcasts praising President Xi Jinping, with punishment meted out swiftly and harshly for the slightest infraction, such as a whispered conversation.
But for many former detainees, one day among the many months they spent locked up, stands out: The day they were forced to choose a crime they allegedly perpetrated.
DW spoke to four former detainees, two men and two women, both ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs, two of several Muslim communities based in based in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of northwestern China – and they all recalled the day they were handed a piece of paper – a long list of crimes – and were told to choose one or several of them. Crimes, they say, they never committed and that, under Chinese law, are not even illegal.
Since then, all four former detainees have escaped to Kazakhstan, and while DW is unable to independently verify their stories, their accounts corroborate each other in key aspects.
One prisoner was in hospital, suffering from tuberculosis he had contracted in hospital, another was handed the paper by a teacher through the bars in the classroom that separated the teaching staff from the students guarded by armed officers.
„They threatened us: if you don’t pick anything that means you did not confess your crime. If you don’t confess, you will stay here forever. That’s why we picked one crime“, one female detainee told DW who was imprisoned in March 2018.
The document, detainees agrees, was a numbered list of more than 70 crimes, ranging from travelling abroad, praying, wearing a headscarf or being involved in international terrorism.
While one other detainee told of the horror she felt when she was handed the list, the nurse said it almost came as a relief: “To be honest, we were happy - at least we now knew the time period we would spend in the camp, before that no-one told us how long we had to stay.. They also told us that if we cooperate, the number of years might be reduced.“
All detainees say they were coerced to sign – but one man managed to refuse, a rare show of individual bravery in a camp surrounded by high walls and watchtowers, and guarded by armed officials. Finally, he was released. But at the time, he says, he was the only one.