Secret footage and text messages believed to have been filmed inside a Chinese detention center by a 31-year-old Uighur man offer a terrifying glimpse into the allegedly unsanitary and inhumane conditions experienced by prisoners in China’s so-called “re-education centers,” where Uighur Muslims have been imprisoned en masse.
The BBC and the Globe and Mail reported this week that Merdan Ghappar, a once-successful model, managed to gain access to his phone while in detention in the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang and had surreptitiously sent a video and a series of text messages to family members in Europe.
The video shows Ghappar handcuffed to a bed in a small and empty room as propaganda messages are heard in the background, apparently piped through a speaker system.
Ghappar’s text messages tell of cramped and unhygienic conditions, psychological and physical trauma, and the screams of his fellow inmates who Ghappar said were tortured and beaten.
Ghappar sent the video and the series of text messages five months ago, his family told the BBC. The messages stopped abruptly, the family said, and they haven’t heard from Ghappar since. They said they hoped that by sharing his video and messages that more awareness would be raised of Ghappar’s plight — and that of the Uighurs as a whole.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government has been accused of imprisoning between 1 and 3 million Uighurs in detention camps. As The Guardian noted, it is the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II.
China has defended these camps as anti-terrorism “re-education centers.” Inmates, however, have reported a multitude of crimes, including torture and sexual assault; and many Uighurs have simply disappeared without a trace, their families and friends say, believed lost in the opaque network of detention camps.
The BBC said this week that it had pressed the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Xinjiang authorities to comment on Ghappar’s detention and whereabouts; but neither responded, the outlet said.
Ghappar was living and working in the Chinese city of Foshan when he was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to more than a year in prison on charges — which his friends say were trumped up — related to the sale of marijuana. He was released last November, the BBC reported, but was told by police about a month later that he needed to return to Xinjiang to undergo “a few days of education at his local community.”
According to his text messages, which have been translated and shared online by James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, Ghappar was first taken to a police station in Xinjiang, where he said he saw more than 50 people locked in “cages” in a tiny room.
Ghappar said the prisoners were all wearing so-called “four-piece suits” — a black cloth bag over their heads, handcuffs, shackles and a steel chain connecting the cuffs to the shackles. He said he too was made to wear one such “suit” and was yelled at by a guard for attempting to lift his hood. The guard allegedly threatened to beat him “to death,” he said.
Ghappar described other aspects of his detention, including sitting on carpets covered in lice and garbage; being fed a diet of only watery soups consisting of the prison guards’ leftovers; rarely being given water to drink; and sharing a limited number of bowls and spoons with the other prisoners, some of whom had infectious diseases.
He also described the alleged torture endured by the other detainees.
“One time I heard a man screaming from morning until evening. This was psychological torture to me — I was afraid, would the next one be me?” Ghappar wrote.
China has faced international pressure, including U.S. sanctions, to release the Uighurs in its custody.
The country insisted last year that it had closed most of the camps and released most detainees. Numerous reports, however, have unearthed evidence to the contrary.