De­tainees speak of brain­wash­ing, tor­ture in camps

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Gerry Shih Fol­low Gerry Shih is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

AL­MATY, Kaza­khstan — Day af­ter day, Omir Bekali and other de­tainees in far western China’s new in­doc­tri­na­tion camps had to dis­avow their Is­lamic be­liefs, crit­i­cize them­selves and their loved ones and give thanks to the rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party.

When Bekali, a Kazakh Mus­lim, re­fused, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. A week later, he was sent to soli­tary con­fine­ment and de­prived of food for 24 hours. Af­ter 20 days, he wanted to kill him­self.

“The psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure is enor­mous, when you have to crit­i­cize your­self, de­nounce your think­ing — your own eth­nic group,” said Bekali, 42, who broke down in tears while de­scrib­ing the camp.

Since last spring, Chinese au­thor­i­ties in the heav­ily Mus­lim re­gion of Xin­jiang have en­snared tens, pos­si­bly hun­dreds of thou­sands of Mus­lim Chinese — and even foreign cit­i­zens — in mass in­tern­ment camps. This de­ten­tion campaign has swept across Xin­jiang, a ter­ri­tory half the area of In­dia, lead­ing to what a U.S. com­mis­sion on China last month said is “the largest mass in­car­cer­a­tion of a mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tion in the world to­day.”

The in­tern­ment pro­gram tries to re­wire the po­lit­i­cal think­ing of de­tainees, erase their Is­lamic be­liefs and re­shape their very iden­ti­ties. Chinese of­fi­cials have largely avoided com­ment, but some have said in state me­dia that ide­o­log­i­cal changes are needed to fight sep­a­ratism and Is­lamic ex­trem­ism. Rad­i­cal Mus­lim Uighurs killed hun­dreds in China in years past.

Three other for­mer in­ternees and a for­mer in­struc­tor in dif­fer­ent cen­ters cor­rob­o­rated Bekali’s de­pic­tion. Taken to­gether, the rec­ol­lec­tions of­fer the most de­tailed ac­count yet of life in­side so-called re-ed­u­ca­tion.

The pro­gram is a hall­mark of China’s em­bold­ened state se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus un­der the deeply na­tion­al­is­tic, hard-line rule of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. It is partly rooted in the an­cient Chinese be­lief in trans­for­ma­tion through ed­u­ca­tion — taken once be­fore to ter­ri­fy­ing ex­tremes dur­ing the mass thought re­form cam­paigns of Mao Ze­dong, the Chinese leader some­times chan­neled by Xi.

“Cul­tural cleans­ing is Bei­jing’s at­tempt to find a fi­nal so­lu­tion to the Xin­jiang prob­lem,” said James Mill­ward, a China his­to­rian at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity.

China-born Bekali moved to Kaza­khstan in 2006 and re­ceived citizenship three years later.

Ng Han Guan / As­so­ci­ated Press

Omir Bekali, a Kazakh Mus­lim, demon­strates how he was strung up dur­ing de­ten­tion in Xin­jiang prov­ince. At an in­tern­ment camp, he was told to dis­avow his Is­lamic be­liefs.

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