Day 6

Leaked photos of Uyghurs interned at Xinjiang detention centres 'devastating,' says activist

Uyghurs living outside of China say a recently published trove of documents and photos from inside the country's secretive mass incarceration system in Xinjiang have left them feeling 'helpless.'

Thousands of files hacked from police computers were released by a consortium of investigative journalists

A group of men in black police uniforms and riot gear, holding shields and batons stand inside a cell. Some of the uniformed men stand over two men who are couching low to the floor while wearing yellow and green vests and chains.
Guards at a detention center in Tekes county, Xinjiang, China, conduct an "anti-escape" drill, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. (Xinjiang Police Files/International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Photos recently published online showing thousands of Uyghurs detained as part of China's secretive mass detention system in Xinjiang region have terrified Turnisa Matsedik-Qira.

The nurse and deputy director of Campaign for Uyghurs in British Columbia lost contact with family members in the area four years ago. 

Now, she fears finding images of a relative or friend in the leaked database.

"I am still very scared to look at all of them," she told CBC Radio's Day 6. "It looks like a lot of people are very familiar … it doesn't mean I know or I don't know [them]. It's that they are all Uyghur people." 

"If I see someone who I know — or my brothers or my cousins or my nephews — in the pictures, I don't know what's going to happen to me. I feel I am very fragile."

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The Xinjiang Police Files were published last week by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a group that includes journalists at the BBC and Der Spiegel. The files contain tens of thousands of images which have been published in their entirety online.

Shoot-to-kill order

Identification photos of more than 2,800 detainees aged 15 to 73, as well as photos depicting police training exercises, are part of the leaked files dated from 2018 and earlier.

Documents also reveal official policies such as a shoot-to-kill order for any person that attempts to escape the camps, the BBC reports

CBC has not independently verified the contents of the leaked files. 

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet travelled to Xinjiang last week as part of a meeting with Chinese officials. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The Chinese government has, for years, maintained the detention centres are so-called "re-education" camps designed to reduce religious extremism. 

However, a 2021 report alleges that between one and two million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been forcibly detained in more than a thousand internment-style camps across Xinjiang since 2014.

A majority of Canadian MPs approved a motion in February 2021 that labelled China's actions in Xinjiang as genocide.

China has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In a statement regarding the recent leak of documents, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., told the BBC that "Xinjiang-related issues are in essence about countering violent terrorism, radicalization and separatism, not about human rights or religion," and that officials have taken "a host of decisive, robust and effective deradicalization measures."

The documents published this week were obtained from an anonymous source who claims to have hacked police computers, including computers in the re-education camps; the documents were later provided to the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. The journalist consortium was given the documents earlier this year. 

I want the people to wake up. No more denial.- Ilshat Kokbore, U.S.-based Uyghur activist

Their publication coincided with United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet's visit to Xinjiang last week. Bachelet said in a press briefing on Saturday she pushed Beijing to review its policies.

"I have raised questions and concerns about the application of counterterrorism and deradicalization measures under broad application, particularly the impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities," said Bachelet.

Photos prove 'militarized nature' of camps: ICIJ

Adrian Zenz, a leading expert on Chinese detention of Uyghurs with the Victims of Communism group, received the cache of documents from the anonymous source, calling the records "very difficult to deal with." He later gave it to the ICIJ.

"I have dealt with devastating, very, very grievous material before," he told As It Happens guest host David Gray on Tuesday. 

"But seeing images of people, looking in their eyes, seeing their facial expression, seeing some of their dejection, or maybe a faint glimmer of hope amidst hopelessness, it was just very hard to describe, really."

Detainees stand in a line and appear to recite text while guards watch at a detention centre. (Xinjiang Police Files/International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)

Some of the identification photos show guards with batons standing near the seated detainees. Other images appear to show police taking part in training drills for subduing inmates.

According to the ICIJ, the photos "serve as irrefutable evidence of the highly militarized nature of the camps and present a stark contrast with those, previously published, that were taken on government-organized press tours."

Data included in spreadsheets also offer a glimpse into the reasons for some detentions at the camps at Xinjiang.

"Guilt by association or guilt over having just done the customary religious practice is one of the primary reasons, really, for people being locked away," said Zenz. 

The files indicate that some people were prosecuted for supposed crimes years after they took place. One man, the BBC reports, was detained in a camp for having "studied Islamic scripture with his grandmother" in 2010.

"I was frozen there when I saw the news," said Ilshat Kokbore, former president of the Uyghur American Association. Kokbore now lives in the United States and has lost contact with his sisters in the Xinjiang region. 

A tearful Uyghur woman is photographed at a 're-education' camp in Xinjiang, China. Photos of more than 2,800 detainees are included in the Xinjiang Police Files. (Xinjiang Police Files/International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)

'They need help'

One photo in the cache of documents features a woman, who was 50 when the photo was taken in 2018, tearfully looking into the camera. The documents state she was detained for "re-education" in 2017 but gives no reason why, according to the BBC.

"When I saw that lady [with] tears in her eyes, I was thinking, if that's my sister — if my sister was also looking at that camera with tears because they want help," Kokbore told Day 6.

"They need help."

Government officials in the U.S., U.K. and Germany have condemned China in response to the publication of the Xinjiang Police Files. In a call with her Chinese counterpart on Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock pushed for a "transparent investigation" into the allegations.

The Canadian government has not publicly commented on the release of the files. CBC Radio contacted Global Affairs Canada, but did not get a response by deadline.

Both Matsedik-Qira and Kokbore say they hope the cache will increase pressure on China to address the alleged abuses.

"I want the people to wake up. No more denial," said Kokbore. 

"See the pictures. Look at the faces... and then say something with your conscience."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Reuters. Interviews produced by Chris Harbord and Yamri Taddese.