Women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured, according to detailed new accounts obtained by the BBC.
Tursunay Ziawudun spent nine months inside China’s vast and secretive system of internment camps in the Xinjiang region. According to independent estimates, more than a million men and women have been detained in the sprawling network of camps, which China says exist for the “re-education” of the Uighurs and other minorities.
Human rights groups say the Chinese government has gradually stripped away the religious and other freedoms of the Uighurs, culminating in an oppressive system of mass surveillance, detention, indoctrination, and even forced sterilisation.
The policy flows from China’s President, Xi Jinping, who visited Xinjiang in 2014 in the wake of a terror attack by Uighur separatists. Shortly after, according to documents leaked to the New York Times, he directed local officials to respond with “absolutely no mercy”. The US government said last month that China’s actions since amounted to a genocide. China says reports of mass detention and forced sterilisation are “lies and absurd allegations”.
First-hand accounts from inside the internment camps are rare, but several former detainees and a guard have told the BBC they experienced or saw evidence of an organised system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture.
Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, said women were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men.
Ziawudun has spoken to the media before, but only from Kazakhstan, where she “lived in constant fear of being sent back to China”, she said. She said she believed that if she revealed the extent of the sexual abuse she had experienced and seen, and was returned to Xinjiang, she would be punished more harshly than before. And she was ashamed, she said.
The Uighurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic minority group that number about 11 million in Xinjiang in north-western China. The region borders Kazakhstan and is also home to ethnic Kazakhs.