Internment camps for Muslim Uighurs make their lives ‘colourful’, Chinese governor claims

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Originally published by The Telegraph on October 16, 2018

China’s detention camps are “training” centres that have made lives more “colourful” for Muslim minorities by saving them from extremist behaviour, a senior official said on Tuesday, in a robust defence of the policy amid growing international criticism.

Shohrat Zakir, governor of Xinjiang, a northwestern province home to Chinese Muslims, said in a rare interview with Chinese state media that the government offered “hands-on training” to teach Uighurs Mandarin, “the country’s common language, legal knowledge, vocational skills, along with de-extremisation education.”

The “free programmes” also provided nutritious meals, air-conditioned rooms, dance contests, and access to facilities including basketball courts, computer labs, and movie screening rooms, said Mr Zakir, stressing the detention centres were legal under Chinese law.

“Many trainees have said that they were previously affected by extremist thought and had never participated in such kinds of art and sports activities, and now they have realised that life can be so colourful,” he said.

Beijing has come under fire for its repression of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking and primarily Muslim minority group. Authorities have justified the crackdown as a necessary part of counter-terrorism efforts.

As many as one million Uighurs have been forced into internment camps where they undergo political indoctrination and abuse. Human rights groups have condemned the detentions as unlawful and inhumane.

Experts say authorities are on the offensive ahead of a major scheduled review of China’s human rights record at the United Nations in early November. Rather than continuing to deny the camps’ existence, authorities are working to reframe the discussion.

Mr Zakir’s comments “are an attempt to whitewash the reality of why people are sent to these camps and what happens inside them,” said Frances Eve, a researcher for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of rights groups.

“These so-called ‘trainees’ are not given an opportunity to challenge the designation of ‘extremist behaviour’ nor the deprivation of their liberty in front of a judge,” she said. “China should allow international experts from the UN into Xinjiang to investigate the camps unhindered instead of engaging in a propaganda campaign.”

China first changed course in an unprecedented move last week when authorities acknowledged and legalised the camps, even providing details about the “re-education” efforts.

The revised law now allows for “vocational skill education training centres” to “carry out anti-extremist ideological education” and implement “psychological and behavioural correction to promote thought transformation of trainees, and help them return to society and family.”

Mr Zakir has provided the government’s most specific account to date. His claims, however, stand in contrast to what human rights groups say former detainees have described – physical and psychological abuse, overcrowding and sometimes even death inside the camps.

“These rampant abuses violate fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, and protections from torture and unfair trials,” said a Human Rights Watch report.

For years, China has waged a crackdown in Xinjiang, banning any “extremist’ activity such as wearing a headscarf, or growing “abnormal” beards. Women have even had their tunics cut short.

Increased oversight in Xinjiang, which includes monitoring residents via facial recognition, mobile phone scans, DNA collection and scores of security cameras, have been justified by officials as efforts to combat extremism and prevent violent terrorist activity.

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