Ethnic Uyghurs held in political “re-education camps” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being sent to prisons in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, officials have confirmed, pointing to an expansion of a secretive system transferring detainees out of the region.
In October last year, RFA’s Uyghur Service reported that authorities in the XUAR had begun covertly sending detainees to prisons in Heilongjiang province and other parts of China to address an “overflow” in overcrowded camps, where up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
The report, which was confirmed by officials in both the XUAR and Heilongjiang, came in the same month that XUAR chairman Shohrat Zakir confirmed to China’s official Xinhua news agency the existence of the camps, calling them an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
As global condemnation over the camp network has grown, including calls for international observers to be allowed into the XUAR to investigate the situation there, reports suggest that authorities may be transferring detainees to other parts of China as part of a bid to obfuscate the scale of detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region.
On Thursday, RFA spoke to officials in both Shaanxi province and neighboring Gansu province, who confirmed that Uyghur and other Muslim detainees from the XUAR had been sent to prisons there, although they were unable to provide specific numbers or dates for when they had been transferred.
An officer who answered the phone at the Shaanxi provincial Public Security Bureau (PSB) told RFA, “I do not have any information on how many Uyghurs are being transferred here,” before referring further questions to the XUAR PSB and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or bingtuan, prison facilities for “more accurate numbers.”
An official at the Cuijiagou prison, in Shaanxi’s Tongchuan city, told RFA to obtain permission from relevant provincial bureaus and send a reporter to the facility with proper documentation before he would answer any questions.
But when asked whether there are Uyghur detainees at Cuijiagou prison, an official with the Shaanxi Provincial Prison Administration confirmed, “that is correct.”
RFA also contacted an official at the Gansu Provincial Prison Administration, who confirmed that detainees from the XUAR are being held in a prison in Baiyin city.
“The number of those transferred from [the XUAR] is huge,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They are not only being held at Baiyin prison, they are in most of the jails throughout Gansu,” he added.
While the official was unable to provide information about when transfers from the XUAR to Gansu began, he did say that the detainees were being held under “special circumstances.”
“They are not here because they committed certain crimes, but for a special reason, and they are under particularly heavy security,” the official said.
“For example, they are not permitted to meet with their relatives or acquaintances,” he said, before referring further questions to his superiors.
Bitter Winter report
The confirmation from officials in Shaanxi and Gansu followed a report over the weekend by Bitter Winter, a website launched by the Italian research center CESNUR that focuses on religious in China, which cited “informed sources” as confirming for the first time that detainees from the XUAR are being sent to prison facilities in the two provinces.