Ethnic Uyghurs held in political re-education camps in northwest China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being sent to prisons in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, officials have confirmed, pointing to an expansion of a secretive system transferring detainees out of the region.
In October last year, RFA's Uyghur Service reported that authorities in the XUAR had begun covertly sending detainees to prisons in Heilongjiang province and other parts of China to address an overflow in overcrowded camps, where up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring strong religious views and politically incorrect ideas have been held since April 2017.
The report, which was confirmed by officials in both the XUAR and Heilongjiang, came in the same month that XUAR chairman Shohrat Zakir confirmed to China's official Xinhua news agency the existence of the camps, calling them an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
As global condemnation over the camp network has grown, including calls for international observers to be allowed into the XUAR to investigate the situation there, reports suggest that authorities may be transferring detainees to other parts of China as part of a bid to obfuscate the scale of detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region.
On Thursday, RFA spoke to officials in both Shaanxi province and neighboring Gansu province, who confirmed that Uyghur and other Muslim detainees from the XUAR had been sent to prisons there, although they were unable to provide specific numbers or dates for when they had been transferred.
An officer who answered the phone at the Shaanxi provincial Public Security Bureau (PSB) told RFA, I do not have any information on how many Uyghurs are being transferred here, before referring further questions to the XUAR PSB and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or bingtuan, prison facilities for more accurate numbers.
An official at the Cuijiagou prison, in Shaanxi's Tongchuan city, told RFA to obtain permission from relevant provincial bureaus and send a reporter to the facility with proper documentation before he would answer any questions.
But when asked whether there are Uyghur detainees at Cuijiagou prison, an official with the Shaanxi Provincial Prison Administration confirmed, that is correct.
RFA also contacted an official at the Gansu Provincial Prison Administration, who confirmed that detainees from the XUAR are being held in a prison in Baiyin city.
The number of those transferred from [the XUAR] is huge, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
They are not only being held at Baiyin prison, they are in most of the jails throughout Gansu, he added.
While the official was unable to provide information about when transfers from the XUAR to Gansu began, he did say that the detainees were being held under special circumstances.
They are not here because they committed certain crimes, but for a special reason, and they are under particularly heavy security, the official said.
For example, they are not permitted to meet with their relatives or acquaintances, he said, before referring further questions to his superiors.
Bitter Winter report
The confirmation from officials in Shaanxi and Gansu followed a report over the weekend by Bitter Winter, a website launched by the Italian research center CESNUR that focuses on religious in China, which cited informed sources as confirming for the first time that detainees from the XUAR are being sent to prison facilities in the two provinces.
The website, which routinely publishes photos and video documenting human rights violations submitted by citizen journalists from inside China, cited one source as saying that Cuijiagou prison holds around 3,000 Uyghurs, who were transported in sealed railway carriages from the XUAR to Shaanxi's capital Xi'an before being loaded onto military trucks with armed police and brought to the facility.
In order to conceal the truth, these people are always sent to the prison at night, the source said, adding that inmates who were previously held at the prison had been transferred to other prisons in advance of the transfer.
Bitter Winter also cited residents of Gansu's Jiuquan city who said that during a three-day period from Aug. 22-24 last year, movement in the city was restricted and roads leading to a newly-built prison in the area were closed off, with barriers of more than one meter (3.2 feet) in height placed along the routes.
Sources said that it wasn't until the third day that the Uyghur detainees were formally transferred, at which time guards in the city were replaced with uniformed police officers, and all shops were ordered to close, while parked cars were towed away.
According to Bitter Winter, buses used for transferring Uyghurs were driven directly onto the train platform in the city's Suzhou district to pick up the detainees on the evening of Aug. 24, and at least 30 to 40 buses with curtains pulled down drove by.
Another source detailed conditions in the prison similar to what RFA has reported about those held in the XUAR's re-education camps�surveillance cameras in nearly every area of the facility, and prohibitions on detainees' access to the outdoors and speaking with one another.
Bitter Winter previously cited sources as saying that prisons in Inner Mongolia have also accepted camp detainees from the XUAR, and that authorities plan to disperse and detain an estimated 500,000 Uyghur Muslims throughout China, although these reports could not be independently confirmed by RFA.
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR�one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand�during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as slanderous lies.
Reporting by RFA's Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps�equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, recently called the situation in the XUAR "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
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