A Chinese official in the Xinjiang region defended the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in extra-judicial, “political re-education” camps.
In a rare interview with the state news agency Xinhua Tuesday, Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir claimed that the camps are “humane” and said they provide “de-extremization education” and “concentration training” for the people detained there.
Prior to Zakir’s interview, no Chinese official had confirmed the existence of the camps.
According to the United Nations, about one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region have been forced into internment camps.
Zakir said the purpose of the camps is to “get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism.”
In August, the U.N. called on China to free those detained without a legal basis, warning the mass detentions amount to “criminal profiling” of ethnic and religious minorities.
“These camps remain blatantly unlawful and arbitrary under both Chinese and international law, and the suffering and abuses of what is estimated to be one million people in them cannot be wiped away through propaganda,” Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the South China Morning Post.
Zakir referred to the detainees as “trainees” and said they are taught Mandarin, modern science, Chinese history and culture. The studies are meant to enhance their “national and civic awareness,” he said.
The camps also provide vocational training and some detainees will be released and assigned jobs at the end of 2018, the governor said. Detainees can receive “graduation certificates” if they sign unspecified agreements and meet certain criteria.
The vocational training that some detainees receive is largely based on skills to work in factories, including garment making, food processing, electronic product assembly, typesetting and printing, Zakir said.
The governor neglected to describe the camp’s “de-extremization” training in detail.
Former detainees, however, have said they were subjected to brainwashing and were forced to denounce their religion and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party.
Omir Bekali, a former detainee, told the Associated Press in May that detainees were subjected to political indoctrination and forced to chant, “Thank the party! Thank the motherland!” before meals.
Bekali said he initially refused to follow orders and was sent to solitary confinement, where he was deprived of food. The experience lead him to the verge of suicide, he said.
“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking — your own ethnic group,” Bekali told the AP, breaking down in tears. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”