International lawmakers have called on their governments to urgently probe allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in response to shocking new allegations of widespread rape by former internment camp detainees.
A report by the BBC on Tuesday included interviews with several women who claimed they were “systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured” while held in the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since early 2017.
Tursunay Ziawudun spent nine months detained at a camp before she was able to flee the country and relocate to the U.S. She told the BBC that women were removed from their cells “every night” and raped by masked Chinese men, and that she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions.
Gulzira Auelkhan, and ethnic Kazakh who was held for 18 months in a camp, said she was forced to handcuff detainees to their beds, remove their clothes, wait outside the room while various Chinese men entered, and then help the detainee shower after they left.
One woman described watching someone be gang-raped in front of around 100 detainees, while others detailed torture that included being penetrated and sodomized with electric batons, as well as receiving “vaccines” that left them sterilized.
On Wednesday, Ziawudun told RFA additional details about her abuse in the camp, saying that the first time she was raped, four men came to get her from her cell.
“They don’t immediately start raping you. First, they interrogate you, coerce you, scream at you, threaten you, then rape you in turn with torture,” she said.
“They’re Chinese men wearing masks and black clothes. I don’t know what kind of people they are. During my three ‘talks,’ different people gang-raped me.”
Ziawudun said that when she told her husband about the rape she enduring in the camp, he was “horrified, but not surprised.”
“He said he could sense what happened to me without me saying a single word. His tears fell and said he could never blame me for what happened,” she said.
“You can see the intense hatred in the eyes of the Chinese police towards us. They believe they have a duty to torture us even to death. I think there’s an order from above to destroy us. I can feel that they’re ordered to destroy us one way or another, even though they’re not publicly executing us.”
Beginning in October 2018, Beijing acknowledged the existence of the camps, but described them as voluntary “vocational centers,” despite reporting by RFA which has found that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
While former detainees have reported isolated incidents of rape and sexual abuse in the XUAR’s camps, the BBC’s investigation provides some of the most damning evidence that such practices occur on a systematic and widespread basis.
And experts believe that while President Xi Jinping and other high-ranking members of the central government may not have ordered such abuses, it is extremely unlikely that they are not aware of them.
Calls for probe
In response to Tuesday’s report, members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC)—a group of more than 200 lawmakers from across the globe—noted that the international community has been too complacent about abuses in the XUAR and warned that “the time for mere words has long passed.”
“IPAC is united in horror and in condemnation of sickening reports of the torture and rape of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the internment camps of Xinjiang,” the group said in a letter signed by more than 30 lawmakers.
“Eyewitness testimonies broadcast by the BBC have exposed depraved and dehumanizing treatment of those detained in several camps.”
IPAC called for a coordinated effort to hold China to account.
“We again call for a U.N. led or international legal investigation of crimes against humanity and genocide that are taking place in Xinjiang, and in the meantime for individual states to respond to their obligations under the genocide convention and take collective urgent political action in response to this evidence,” the letter said.
IPAC’s statement included signatures by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, co-chair of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), and Robert Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as lawmakers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, the EU, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the U.K.
A spokesperson told RFA in an emailed statement that the U.S. State Department is "deeply disturbed" by the BBC report and called on Beijing to "allow for immediate and independent investigations by international observers into these shocking allegations."
"The PRC has committed crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang against Uyghurs, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups," the statement said.
"These atrocities shock the conscience and must be met with serious consequences ... The United States calls upon the leaders of the PRC to immediately release all arbitrarily detained people and abolish the internment camps; to cease enforced sterilizations; to end all torture; and to stop persecuting Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang."
The BBC report also prompted statements from human rights advocates, including Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, who echoed concerns that more must be done to confront China on the situation in the XUAR.
“Where. Is. The. Prosecution? Because the evidence of *persecution* just keeps coming,” she said in a tweet.
German researcher Adrian Zenz, who in a June 2020 report linked decreases in the birthrate and natural population growth rate in the XUAR in 2018 to forced sterilization and concluded that such measures amount to genocide under United Nations definitions, also weighed in, tweeting, “It’s time our political leaders stopped pretending this isn't a big deal.”
When Zenz’s study came out, official Chinese media vilified him and said Beijing is “considering suing” him for libel, while the foreign ministry denounced him.
But on Tuesday, the senior fellow at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and leading expert on China’s policies toward Uyghurs doubled down, saying the BBC report “could tick another box of the U.N. Genocide Convention” and pointing to criteria that include “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”
The BBC’s investigation follows the Jan. 19 announcement by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he had “determined” China is “committing genocide and crimes against humanity” in the XUAR against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, and that Beijing and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “must be held to account.”
Pompeo’s designation, which came on his last full day as top U.S. diplomat and marked the first time China’s policies in the XUAR were labeled genocide by a foreign government, cited “the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group.”
The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has endorsed the designation, suggesting that President Joe Biden’s administration will pursue a more forceful approach in holding China accountable for its abuses in the region. Emily Horne, the spokesperson for Biden’s National Security Council, told the Washington Examiner over the weekend that “President Biden has called the oppression of the Uyghurs a genocide, and he stands against it in the strongest possible terms.”
On Jan. 20, the first day of the Biden administration, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying slammed Pompeo’s “venomous lies” and called the determination “nothing more than a piece of wastepaper.”
Former President Donald Trump’s administration in July leveled sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in the region, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment in June of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja and Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.