Norway Human Rights Conference hears shocking testimony of Uighur detention and persecution in China

This week (15th June) at the Oslo Freedom Forum, in Norway, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a former engineer in the Uighur region of Xinjiang, China, described how she had been tricked to return to China on the pretext of signing pension papers only to be disappeared into a re-education camp.

Gulbahar had previously worked as an engineer for an Oil company for 18 years in the Uighur district of Xinjiang and had subsequently been living peacefully and raising her family in France for over a decade, before responding to a request from her former employer to return to sort out her pension benefits. She was completely unaware that her return was a subject of interest to the Chinese authorities – she was not a political activist, she had not been outspoken on any state processes. So, when soon after her arrival, she was suddenly seized by uniformed police and taken to a police station, interrogated about every aspect of her life, it was all a complete shock to her. She explained how photographs of her daughter wrapped in a Turkistan flag at a protest in France had been slammed on the table in front of her.  

Accused of ‘assembling people to disturb social order’

She was eventually released but her passport was held and some weeks later she received a summons to attend a police station to, as she understood, collect her passport. Instead, her fingerprints and blood samples were taken, her face and iris were scanned and voice samples were recorded. She was then taken to the notorious Karamay Detention Centre, where she was forced to sign a statement confirming that she had been actively involved in ‘assembling people to disturb social order’. She was forced to dress in a yellow prison uniform and her ankles were shackled, before she was thrown into a cell designed for 9 people but which was crammed with between 30 to 40 other women similarly shackled at their ankles. There, Gulbahar remained and found herself subject to a daily regime of extensive and relentless interrogation while handcuffed, hooded and seated on a hard metal chair.  

Gulbahar Haitiwaji, described how she had to endure meager rations of food, which consisted of a solitary bun and watery soup each day. She explained how the context of allowing her and fellow prisoners access to fresh air was effectively turned into a form of torture, as they were forced to stand outside in freezing conditions as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius often for hours on end, wearing just thin clothing. She explained how the lack of food and the cold:

 ‘seeped into our bones, causing us to lose sensation and leaving our lips struggling to form words’

Chained to their beds for twenty days

On her return to her cold cell, Gulbahar recalled how for hours the inmates remained in a semi-comatose state.  There was one period when for 20 days she and the other inmates were chained to their beds and her emotional state was such, that her sense of shame took precedence over any fear. She said that she had lost the ability to have any bowel movements and after ten days and excruciating pain in her stomach, she was forced to relieve herself in front of everyone as she ceased to hold back the tears.  She spent the next four months in this condition before officially being inducted to begin the re-education process. All the women, she explained, were forced to have their hair cut short and they were forbidden to speak in their mother Uighur language and Dua prayers were strictly forbidden. Punishment was exacted for anybody who so much as wiped their lips or washed their faces with both hands – actions that were considered a form of prayer. Security cameras were positioned everywhere with unseen operators scrutinizing their every move. Each day was spent with a vigorous programme of 11 hours studying Chinese laws, language, history and communist songs. Each morning they were required to express their gratitude and allegiance to the Great country, the Communist Party and its leader – Xi Jinping. The days ended with them being required to express similar sentiments.

It was not until October 2018, that she was eventually presented before court and what constituted a trial. Of this experience she said:

‘I was accused of various crimes, including allowing my husband and daughter to renounce their Chinese citizenship, selling my property in my homeland, failing to prevent my daughter from participating in protests, and displaying reduced loyalty to the Chinese authorities, I was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment.’

Three years later, on 19th August 2019 with the help of lobbying by her daughter, the diplomatic efforts of the French government and after pledging to never disclose details of her experience in the camp – if she wanted her relatives still living in China to be spared punishment, she was finally granted her freedom and returned home to France.

Protesters in Paris December 2022 against persecution of Uighurs in China

‘The Chinese authorities have created a dystopian hellscape’

Amnesty International has documented the cases of dozens of former inmates in the so called re-education centres in China.  They have presented detailed reports showing how China is responsible for ‘systematic state-organised mass imprisonment, torture and persecution amounting to crimes against humanity’ against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Their reports have detailed:

‘the extreme measures taken by Chinese authorities since 2017 to essentially root out the religious traditions, cultural practices and local languages of the region’s Muslim ethnic groups. Carried out under the guise of fighting “terrorism”, these crimes have targeted ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tajiks.’ 

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

‘The Chinese authorities have created a dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’


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