An Uyghur man managed to share a glimpse of his condition in one of China’s “reeducation camps” to the outside world, supporting countless alleged stories that point to the oppression, persecution and incarceration of his people.
Merdan Ghappar, 31, a native of Xinjiang, used to work as a model in the southern Chinese city of Foshan — a job that reportedly earned him up to 10,000 yuan (about $1,440) a day.
Ghappar’s life changed in August 2018 when he was arrested and sentenced to 16 months in prison for allegedly selling cannabis. His friends do not believe a word of it.
Shortly after his release in November 2019, police contacted Ghappar again and informed him that he must complete a “routine registration procedure.” He was forced to return to Xinjiang.
Ghappar’s family believes that he wound up in one of the region’s “reeducation camps” — facilities established by the Chinese Communist Party to fight terrorism, deter extremism and promote Sinicization.
The camps, officially known as Vocational Education and Training Centers, began operations in 2017 and have since raised concerns globally, mainly due to claims of human rights abuses.
More than a month into his disappearance, Ghappar, somehow, managed to access a phone and used it to contact the outside world.
What he revealed, however, only escalated fears of China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs.
In a video sent to his family, Ghappar can be seen showing his dirty clothes, his swollen ankles and a set of handcuffs that locked his left wrist to his bed. He also managed to send text messages to loved ones, which described part of his conditions in detail.
“I saw 50 to 60 people detained in a small room no bigger than 50 square metres, men on the right, women on the left,” he wrote. “Everyone was wearing a so-called ‘four-piece-suit’, a black head sack, handcuffs, leg shackles and an iron chain connecting the cuffs to the shackles.”
Ghappar’s account also alleges how Xinjiang enforced quarantine policies at the height of China’s battle against COVID-19. He recalled four young men, approximately between 16 and 20, who were punished severely for going outside.
“During the epidemic period they were found outside playing a kind of game like baseball,” Ghappar noted. “They were brought to the police station and beaten until they screamed like babies, the skin on their buttocks split open and they couldn’t sit down.”
Ghappar’s messages were translated and analyzed by James A. Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University. The latter believes they are consistent with other well-documented cases.
“He writes in very good Chinese and gives, frankly, a lot of horrific detail about the way these people are treated. So, it’s quite a rare source,” Millward told the BBC.
Ghappar was last heard of in early March. His current whereabouts are unknown.
“We exchanged messages for a week … [and for the last time] around March 9 or 10, I can’t remember exactly,” his uncle, Abdulhakim, told Radio Free Asia.
Abdulhakim, who is based in the Netherlands, communicated with him through his aunt, Ayshemgul, who has also become unreachable.
“He sent me a message and then he and my sister were just gone. I’ve heard nothing from my sister since,” Abdulhakim said. “It seems clear that he got in even worse trouble after sending the video — I think this is why he disappeared.”
Feature Image Screenshots via Abdulhakim Ghappar