Dabancheng, China – Uyghur prisoners sat in even rows, with their legs crossed in lotus position and their backs straight, numbered and tagged, watching grainy black-and-white images of Chinese Communist Party history on a television were watching.
It is one of an estimated 240 cells in just one section of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabangcheng, which Associated Press reporters granted extraordinary access to during a state-led tour of China’s far west Xinjiang region. The detention center is the largest in the country and possibly the world, with a complex that spans 220 acres – twice as large as Vatican City. A sign on the front identified it as “Kanshousuo”, a pre-trial detention facility.
Chinese officials declined to say how many prisoners were there, saying the numbers varied. But the AP estimated that the center could be crowded with as many as 10,000 people, based on satellite imagery and cells and benches seen during the tour. While the BBC and Reuters have reported externally in the past, the AP was the first Western media organization to be given permission.
The site states that China still plans to detain large numbers of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities. Satellite imagery shows new buildings about a mile long were added to the Dabangcheng Detention Facility in 2019.
China has described its widespread lockup of a million or more minorities over the past four years as a “war on terror” following a series of stabbings and bombings by a small number of militant Uighurs native to Xinjiang. Among its most controversial aspects were the so-called commercial “training centres” – described as brutal internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards by former detainees.
China at first denied their existence, and then, under heavy international criticism, said in 2019 that all occupants had “graduated”. But the AP’s visit to Dabangcheng, satellite imagery and interviews with experts and former detainees, shows that while many “training centers” were in fact closed, few such ones have been converted into prisons or pre-trial detention facilities. was. Several new facilities have also been built, including a new 85-acre detention center down the road from No. 3 in Dabangcheng, which moved up from 2019, satellite imagery shows.
The change appears to be an attempt to move from temporary and extrajudicial “training centers” to a more permanent system of prisons and pre-trial detention facilities justified under the law. While some Uighurs have been released, others have simply been transferred to this prison network.
However, researchers say innocent people were often taken into custody for things like going abroad or attending religious ceremonies. Darren Baylor, an anthropologist who studied Uighurs at the University of Colorado, said that many prisoners have not committed “actual crimes by any standard” and that they undergo “show” trials without due process.
“We are going from a police state to a mass incarceration state. Hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared from the population,” said Darren Baylor, an anthropologist studying Uighurs at the University of Colorado. criminalization.”
3 in Dabangcheng, officials repeatedly turned it away from “training centres” which Beijing claims have closed.
“There was no connection between our detention center and training centers,” Urumqi Public Security Bureau director Zhao Zhongwei insisted. “No one has ever been here.”
He also said the number 3 center was a testament to China’s commitment to rehabilitation and the rule of law, providing prisoners with hot meals, exercise, access to legal advice and classes lecturing on their crimes on television. Rights are reserved, officials say, and only lawbreakers need to worry about detention.
“Look, the BBC reports that it was a re-education camp. It’s not – it’s a detention center,” said Liu Chang, a foreign ministry official.
However, despite the authorities’ claims, evidence suggests that Number 3 was actually an internment camp. A Reuters photo of the entrance in September 2018 shows that the facility was called the “Urumqi Vocational Skills Education and Training Center”. Publicly available documents collected by Sean Zhang, a law student in Canada, confirm that a center with the same name was built at the same location in 2017.
Records also show that the Chinese conglomerate Hengfeng Information Technology won an $11 million contract to design the “Urumqi Training Center”. A person who answered a number for Hengfeng confirmed that the company had participated in the construction of the “training center”, but Hengfeng did not respond to further requests for comment.
A former construction contractor who visited the Dabangcheng facility in 2018 told the AP that it was similar to “Urumqi Vocational Skills Education and Training Center” and was turned into a detention facility with a nameplate switch in 2019. He declined to be named for fear of retaliation against his family.
“All the former students inside became prisoners,” he said.
The sprawling complex is surrounded by 25 feet high concrete walls painted blue, humming watchtowers and electric wires. Officers lead AP reporters through the main entrance, past face-scanning turnstiles and through rifle-toting guards in military camouflage.
Masked prisoners sat sternly in one corner of the complex. Most appeared to be Uyghurs. The center’s director, Zhu Hongbin, rapped at a window in the cell.
“They are completely unbreakable,” he said, his voice buried under medical gear from head to toe.
In the control room, employees watched from wall to wall, a god’s eye display of some two dozen screens streaming footage from each cell. Another panel sourced programming from state broadcaster CCTV, which Zhu said was being shown to prisoners.
“We control what we see,” Zhu said. “We can see if they’re breaking the rules, or if they might injure or kill themselves.”
Zhu said the center also shows video classes to teach them about their crimes.
“They should be taught why killing people is bad, why stealing is bad,” Zhu said.
Twenty-two rooms with chairs and computers allow inmates to chat via video with lawyers, relatives and police as they are strapped to their seats. Down the aisle, there is a branch of the Urumqi Prosecutor’s Office in an office, in another sign of a switch to a formal prison system.
A nearby medical room has a gurn, a tank of oxygen and a cabinet with medicine. The wall-hung guidelines instruct staff on proper protocol for dealing with sick prisoners – and even forcibly feeding prisoners on hunger strikes with tubes inserted into their noses.
The other official, Zhao, said prisoners are held from 15 days to a year before trial depending on their suspected crime, and the legal process is the same as in the rest of China. He said the center was set up to keep prisoners away from the city due to security concerns.
3 Detention Center is comparable in size to New York City’s Rikers Island, but the area serves fewer than four million people, compared to about 20 million for Rikers. Along with ten or more prisons, there are at least three other detention centers scattered across Urumqi.
The No. 3 center did not hit full capacity; One section was closed, officials said, and six to ten prisoners sat in each chamber, taking only half the bench. But the latest official government figures available for 2019 show that there were nearly twice as many arrests in Xinjiang that year than before the crackdown began in 2017. Hundreds of thousands have been sentenced to prison, many to five years or more.
Xinjiang spokesman Xu Guijiang called the high incarceration rates a “serious measure” in the “war on terror”.
“Of course, during this process, the number of those convicted according to the law will increase. This is a solid indication of our efficiency,” Xu said. “By taking these measures, terrorists are more likely to be brought to justice.”
But many relatives of those imprisoned say they were sentenced on false charges, and experts warn that the ambiguity of the Xinjiang legal system is a red flag. Although China makes legal records easily accessible otherwise, about 90 percent of criminal records in Xinjiang are not public. The handful of people who have leaked show that some are accused of “terrorism” or “separatism” some believe to be criminals, such as co-workers watching porn and swearing or praying in prison. to warn against
Researcher Jean Bunin found that Uighurs were forced to sign statements that authorities called “terrorist activities.” Some were later released, including one detained at the Dabangcheng facility, a relative told The Associated Press, who declined to be named to avoid retribution against the former detainee.
The others were not. Police reports obtained by The Intercept details the case of eight Uighurs in an Urumqi neighborhood who were detained in a “Dabancheng” facility in 2017 for reading religious texts, installing file sharing applications, or simply being an “untrustworthy person”. was taken in. In late 2018, reports suggest, prosecutors called him to temporary meetings and sentenced him to two to five years of “study”.
AP reporters saw no signs of torture or beatings at the facility, and were unable to speak directly to any former or current detainees. But Zumaret Dout, a Uighur fleeing Xinjiang, said a dead friend who worked in Dabangcheng behaved so brutally that she fainted. The friend, Parade Amati, said he had seen some teenagers forced to sign confessions claiming to be involved in terrorism while studying in Egypt, and their skin was beaten bloody and raw.
A teacher at the Dabangcheng facility even called it “worse than hell”, according to Kelbinur Sedic, an associate at a different camp. According to Sedic, the teacher said that during classes she could hear people being tortured with electric sticks and iron chairs.
The description of conditions in detention centers elsewhere in Xinjiang varied widely: some describe restrictive conditions but no physical abuse, while others say they were tortured. Such accounts are difficult to independently verify, and Xinjiang officials deny all allegations of abuse.
Chinese officials have also denied that they are holding Uighurs on false charges. Down the street from the No. 3 center, high walls and guard towers were visible in the same location as the new detention facility shown in satellite imagery.
When asked what it was, the officials expressed ignorance.
“We don’t know what it is,” he said.