Former Muslim inmate recounts abuse he experienced at China's 're-education' camp

An Imam calls on Muslim Uighurs for their afternoon prayer with a self-made iron loudspeaker on the roof of the Kuqa Mosque, the second biggest mosque in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, August 20, 2012. | Reuters/Stringer

A Muslim inmate at one of China's "re-education" camps has recently spoken about the torture that he had endured as authorities attempted to force him to renounce his beliefs.

Omir Bekali, a Kazakh citizen, was reportedly held in one of the camps for twenty days after he spent seven months in a prison.

During his stay at the camp, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time for refusing to follow orders. He was then sent to a solitary confinement, where he was not allowed to eat any food for 24 hours. Bekali noted that he had contemplated suicide after 20 days at the camp.

"The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticise yourself, denounce your thinking – your own ethnic group. I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can't sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time," Bekali narrated, as reported by The Independent.

Bekali was born in China in 1976 but had acquired Kazakh citizenship in 2009, three years after moving to the neighboring country.

The former inmate noted that Muslims at the camp are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol as part of the re-education process.

Chinese officials who have spoken to the media about the camps have said that the aim of the re-education camp was to fight Islamic extremism and separatism.

In an effort to curb extremism, the Chinese government had set up a massive surveillance program in Xinjiang to monitor activities of Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, the Communist Party has deployed more than one million party members to spend days in the homes of mostly Muslim families in Xinjiang and report on the extent of religious beliefs of the family members, as well as instances uncleanliness and alcoholism.

Some have estimated that tens or even hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang have been detained in the camps. It has been described by a U.S. commission as the "largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."

As part of the re-education program, detainees are encouraged to criticize people and things that they love. Those who refuse to do so are reportedly sent to solitary confinement and beaten by officers.

Bekali's account of what went on at the camp when he was detained there was corroborated by three other former inmates and a former instructor in another center, according to The Independent. Two Kazakh officials have confirmed that he was detained for seven months and sent to re-education a camp.

The authorities had arrested Bekali a day after he handed over a decades-old Chinese identity card at police checkpoints when he visited his parents in Xinjiang on March 25.

He was held incommunicado in a cell for a week before he was transferred to Karamay's Baijiantan District public security office, where he was interrogated about his work and tortured by officials.

Three months after his arrest, Kazakh officials had paid a visit to Bekali and other Kazakh citizens who had been detained in China. Bekali was taken out of his cell four months after the visit, but he was not set free.

He had been sent to a compound in the northern suburbs of Karamay where about 1,000 internees are being indoctrinated by the state, he recounted.

At the camp, Bekali and other internees are forced to learn "red songs" and study Chinese language and history. Inmates are required to chant "Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!" before they could eat their meals.

Detainees are also forced to present self-criticism of their own religious history after enduring four-hour lectures about the dangers of Islam.

Bekali had thought of killing himself after enduring 20 days at the camp. He had been sent to solitary confinement after he reportedly told an official to take him back to his former detention center.

"Take me in the back and kill me, or send me back to prison. I can't be here anymore," he reportedly shouted, according to The Independent.

The Kazakh national was released after 24 hours in solitary confinement. He said that he initially did not want to tell his story for fear that his relatives would be targeted. However, he changed his mind when his mother, his father and his sister were taken by the authorities on three separate occasions.

"Things have already come this far. I have nothing left to lose," he said, according to The Independent.