Qelbinur Sidik, Omir Bekali, and Abduweli Ayup told more horrific details of sexual and physical abuse to the Uyghur Tribunal—and to Bitter Winter.
A top-secret assignment to teach a class of illiterates became an ordeal of unspeakable proportions that lives with Qelbinur Sidik to this day. I have listened to this former primary school teacher speak several times about her transfer to a detention camp, and interviewed her more than once, but hearing her address the Uyghur Tribunal in London she seemed to be fueled with extra spirit and courage. She has never wavered on the facts, but this time the hope that something might be achieved through the hearings to change the fate of the young women she left behind seemed to fill her with a fire I have not witnessed in her before.
The class she had been charged to teach was no ordinary class. A far cry from primary aged children, these students lived in a filthy over-crowded cell, surrounded by armed officers in a building cloaked in razor wire and their uniform shackles and a prison jump suit. They were stooped, cowed, terrified, monitored day and night and languishing in prison for crimes they had not committed.
Qelbinur was sworn to secrecy on pain of succumbing to the same fate, but promised herself that one day, given the chance, she would tell the world that she saw young women tortured, raped and killed, young men disappear, the gratuitous humiliation of elderly men and women and unspeakable suffering inflicted on innocent people. She estimated that seven to eight thousand detainees were crammed into tiny cells where they had to take turns sleeping. Guards mocked their lice ridden clothes, handed out unknown drugs, and regularly took blood. Screams from interrogation rooms echoed down the corridors as she was expected to continue teaching without flinching.
When eventually she left a second camp through ill health, she was forced to take early retirement with the other Uyghur teachers at her school, and to be sterilized with all the women in her district. The final indignity was enduring the CCP “pair up and become family” scheme, whereby her husband’s boss was required to live, eat, study and sleep together with them for a week once a month. The mood of intimidation and ever-present threat of the camps forced her to comply and fend off his advances with laughs and smiles. So many single women and girls whose fathers and husbands were in detention were raped, that the government was forced to investigate, she said. “Of course they all had to take back their allegations,” said Qelbinur.
She cannot forget the sobs and the suffering of the girls who were wrenched out of class to be gang raped and tortured. “I am doing this for them,” she told me.
Omir Bekali, a Kazakh national but Uyghur by race, pulled from his jacket seven kilos of chains and proceeded to link his wrists and ankles to show how he was shackled during the long months of his imprisonment. While on a short business trip to China, he had been hooded, handcuffed and taken to a hospital for full medical checks where he was forced to give blood and urine samples, had ultrasounds of vital organs, iris, fingerprint and voice checks. With no trial or possibility of notifying his wife or parents, he was bound with chains and put in a cell, and interrogated for several days on suspicion of terrorism related crimes.
“They interrogated me for four days and nights with extreme torture methods. They made me sit on the ‘tiger’ chair. They hung me from the ceiling. They chained me to the wall and beat me with plastic, wooden, electric batons, and a metal wire whip. They pierced needles under my nails. I could take nap of ten or fifteen minutes only when I was seated on the ‘tiger’ chair. They forced me to accept three crimes: instigating terrorism, organizing terror activities, and covering up for terrorists. I denied everything,” he said.
Following his denials, he was moved to a second camp where he was chained to a bed for three months without washing or being allowed to exercise. Political indoctrination was interspersed with a single steamed bun and celery gruel and from their cell of 35–40 men, up to ten would disappear every week. He was certain he would be killed. More torture followed in a new prison where he was subjected to brutal treatment and surrounded by sickly inmates, many of whom died. “I constantly asked them to either give me a trial, or shoot me, or release me,” he said detailing a string of sadistic punishments including having to stand outside in shorts during the harsh winter.
Finally after losing half his body weight and unable to support his frame, he was suddenly and inexplicably released, with orders not to breathe a word of his detention on pain of severe consequences to his family. The long arm of the CCP reached him in Almaty after he spoke to the press, and he was forced to flee to Turkey. As a result of his testimony his father, mother, sister and brother were taken to a camp, where his father was tortured to death.
“China may one day kill me. But I am ready to die,” he said defiantly. “As long as my soul is in my body, I will not cease to bear witness and testify to the oppression of my people. I believe the truth will win one day.”
Abduweli Ayup, whose sister’s death was covered recently by Bitter Winter, also testified before the Tribunal. Now an exile in Norway, his story began back in 2013 after he was arrested for promoting the linguistic rights of the Uyghur people. He was about to open two kindergartens when he was detained, but not tried until July 2014.
Months of brutal torture followed his arrest with accusations of his being a CIA spy, for instigating separatism through his “Love the Mother Language” campaign, and inciting people to threaten Chinese stability and the government’s monolingual language policy. Telling him that their interrogation techniques were “better than those of the CIA,” he was prodded with electric batons. The final horror was after he was taken to a room and ordered to strip. Ten or so convicted criminals were let loose on him. He was ordered to bow “like a dog,” and brutally raped by each one.
Months in a second detention center followed when he was given a full body check in the hospital on arrival. He was X-rayed, given ultrasound, saliva, blood and urine tests, before his full facial recognition data was taken, and dressed in an orange uniform to denote his status as a political prisoner. More vicious torture followed over ensuing months. Guards ordered prisoners to beat him and were rewarded with drugs or cigarettes. They hung him over a toilet which was strewn with glass and told to confess his crimes of “separating Xinjiang from China through his mother language kindergartens.” Shackled with iron chains and dizzy from sleep deprivation life became unbearable.
He was finally given the choice of pleading guilty to separatism, which would have earned him life imprisonment, or a lesser trumped-up charge of illegal fundraising for which he would only serve 18 months.
By the time he was eventually released, the world of Xinjiang had changed. Xi Jinping’s so-called “War on Terror” had been launched and he felt he had returned to a war zone of soldiers, armored vehicles and police patrols on the streets. He did not feel safe to remain, and left for Turkey as a refugee in 2015, moving onto claim asylum in Norway where he is now an activist on behalf of his mother tongue and the disappeared amidst the vast network of internment and detention camps.