In the Chinese government's vast network of re-education camps in Xinjiang province, the daily horror of internment was infused with monotony and boredom. Detainees were forced to endure countless hours of indoctrination and language classes, perched on small stools. In some facilities, they had to watch TV propaganda broadcasts praising President Xi Jinping for hours on end.
The slightest infraction, such as a whispered conversation, was met with swift and harsh punishment.
But among the many months spent locked up, some former detainees report that one day was different: The day when they were forced to pick one or several infractions from a list they were handed. In essence, the detainees had to retroactively choose the crimes for which they had been imprisoned, often for months, in most cases without being told why they had been detained in the first place.
After picking a crime from the list came a sham trial, in which the detainees had no legal representation and were convicted without evidence or due process of any kind.
DW spoke to four former detainees, two men and two women from Xinjiang, a remote region in northwestern China whose mostly Muslim population has long faced repression by the Chinese authorities — including, in recent years, lengthy internment in re-education camps.
All four detainees spent months imprisoned in Xinjiang in 2017 and 2018. The interviews were conducted independently of each other, over the course of several weeks.
Detainees forced to pick crimes from a list
All four recalled the day they were handed a piece of paper detailing more than 70 acts and forced to choose one or several of them. Some of the acts were seemingly innocuous, such as traveling or contacting people abroad. But most of them were religious acts, such as praying or wearing a headscarf.
Since then, all four former detainees have moved to neighboring Kazakhstan, following public pressure from family members living there and, most likely, behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by the Kazakh government. As a result, the Chinese government has released those with Kazakh residency permits, passports and family members living in Kazakhstan, which is home to a sizable Uighur community.
For those without outside links and citizenship, however, it is virtually impossible to escape China's vast network of repression and constant surveillance.
While DW is unable to independently verify the four detainees' stories, their accounts corroborate each other in key aspects.
One prisoner was in a hospital wing inside a camp, suffering from tuberculosis he had contracted during his stay, when he was given the list. The man speaks and reads little Chinese, so fellow inmates had to translate for him into the Uighur language.
Another was handed the paper by a teacher through the bars in the camp's classroom that separated the teaching staff from the students guarded by armed officers sporting stun guns.
"They threatened us: 'if you don't pick anything, that means you did not confess your crime. If you don't confess, you will stay here forever.' That's why we picked one crime," one female detainee who was imprisoned in March 2018 told DW.
One of the female detainees told DW of the horror she felt when she was handed the list and was forced to pick a crime and sign the list. She could not sleep for days, she says — afraid she would never be able to return home.
Another said it almost came as a relief: "To be honest, we were happy — at least we now knew the time period we would spend in the camp. Before that, no one told us how long we had to stay." Detainees were also told that if they cooperated, the number of years they would be forced to spend in the camp might be reduced.
An act of bravery
While all detainees say they were pressured to sign, one man managed to refuse, a rare show of individual bravery in a camp surrounded by high walls and watchtowers and guarded by armed officials. He was innocent and had done nothing wrong, he said.
Over the course of three days, officials — some high-ranking — berated him endlessly, trying to force him to sign a confession.
Then, out of the blue, he was released into months of strictly monitored house arrest. At the time, he says, he was the only one who was freed, while all the other detainees remained in the camp.
It is the only case DW has encountered in which a prisoner was able to resist the pressure. The man holds a valid Kazakh residency permit, which may explain why he — unlike others — was spared a "trial".
All detainees DW spoke to agreed that the document they were pressured to sign was a numbered list of more than 70 alleged crimes.
It seems to be based on another list detailing 75 acts that the Chinese authorities consider to constitute "extreme religious acts," which was circulated in Xinjiang around 2014, most likely in order for residents to identify suspicious behavior and report it to the police. It includes such acts as "inciting jihad," "advocating sharia law," "forcing women to wear a headscarf" or "distributing religious propaganda material," but also more innocuous acts such as suddenly giving up smoking or drinking.
Trials show China targeting Muslim culture
The list published in 2014, one detainee confirmed, was very similar to the one he had been given in the camp, but that included several additions such as traveling abroad or having a passport.
DW has also seen a photo of an official notice displayed in Niya, in Xinjiang's Hotan Prefecture, that was published around the same time, detailing "26 types of behavior of illegal religious activities," such as leading prayers or forcing others to pray or wear headscarves. Many of the acts are identical to the ones on the list the detainees were handed.
The fact that most acts deemed illegal were of a religious nature is a further indication that the Chinese authorities are targeting the religion and cultural practices of its Muslim minorities in an attempt to eradicate them, as activists have long claimed.
Religious activities considered illegal are often as vague as "disrupting social order," according to Timothy Grose, a Xinjiang expert at the Indiana-based Rose-Hulman Institute. "Officials can basically interpret them any way they want," he told DW. "The entire (legal) system is just silly, it's arbitrary."
Since 2016, the Chinese government has been arresting ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs and imprisoning them in what is officially called "Vocational Education Training Centers," but have been referred to in the West as "re-education" camps.
It is hard to say exactly how many people have been imprisoned. According to estimates, at least 1 million of the roughly 10 million Uighurs and Kazakhs living in Xinjiang have disappeared into the vast network of prisons and camps.
Attempt to eliminate Uighur identity
Chinese authorities claim that the camps were built to fight "extremist ideas" and provide Uighurs with "valuable skills."
There are legitimate reasons for Chinese authorities to be concerned about Uighur extremism. Following decades of cultural and political discrimination, as well as state-sponsored migration of the majority ethnic Han Chinese to Xinjiang, widespread discontent has, at times, turned violent.
In 2009, ethnic riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, left more than 140 people dead and hundreds injured, as protesters attacked Han residents and burned buses.
In 2014, a terrorist attack was carried out on a market in Urumqi, killing 31 people. In response, the Chinese government intensified its surveillance and control of Uighurs.
However, under the guise of fighting terrorism, China's policy seems to punish an entire population, in what seems to be an attempt to eliminate the local language, religion and culture.
Recent reporting by DW and its media partners shows that, in the majority of cases, China is imprisoning Uighurs based on their religious practices and culture, rather than extremist behavior.
Xinjiang's residents are subjected to draconian methods of tracking and arrest. Facial recognition is carried out with high-tech surveillance cameras. Individual Uighur families are constantly monitored through a network of spies, repeated house visits, and collective interrogations — and any sign of religiosity can lead to imprisonment.
And this collective punishment includes, DW has learned, putting Uighurs and Kazakhs retroactively through sham trials within the camps without any recourse to due process.
A few days after they were forced to pick a crime and sign the list, one detainee told DW, officials started calling people out one by one.
She was, she said, so terrified that she fainted and was taken back to her room. She was sentenced in absentia. "I was given 2 years for traveling abroad. I started feeling very sad, but still, compared to other people, my sentence was the lightest. Some people were given six years, 10 years even." The longer sentences, she says, were meted out for religious acts, such as praying regularly.
'In two years, I will be dead'
The detainees who received the lengthy prison terms, she says "started sobbing and crying. I felt really sorry for them."
But despite her shorter sentence, she says she lost all hope. "I thought: 'In two years, I will be dead.'"
While she herself did not experience the sham trial, other detainees recounted the details. "There weren't any lawyers or defendants." Five or six detainees were sentenced at a time, she said.
After their sentence had been read out to them, they were forced to confess to their crimes. "They had to say: 'I promise I won't repeat my wrongdoings.'"
The proceedings seemed to differ slightly from camp to camp: In one, prisoners' relatives were present and forced to sign the sentence.
In another, prisoners were sentenced individually, one at a time, and forced to sign the document detailing their sentence.
One detainee, a businessman who used to export vegetables from China to Kazakhstan, says he was terrified and couldn't sleep for days. He believes the authorities came up with the so-called trials "in order to find some excuse to show that I was a criminal".
All four of them were adamant they had not committed any crime. One man, his anger palpable in his voice, said he felt very angry every time he recalled his experience: "I never did anything wrong and still I ended up like this."
The four detainees witnessed the sham trials in three different camps across Xinjiang. DW was able to verify their location using satellite imagery and publicly available material, such as construction bids and tender notices.
While DW is unable to determine how widespread the sham trials were, given the centralized control of the camps at the time, it is likely that it was happening across the region.
DW reached out with its findings to both the Chinese embassy in Berlin and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. In response, DW was provided with a link to a statement published on the embassy's website in late 2019 detailing that the camps provide vocational skills and were set up to fight extremism.
The measures had been, the statement read, "effective": "In Xinjiang, there have been no terror attacks in the last three years, and the fundamental human rights of members of all ethnic groups, including their right to life, health and development, are effectively being granted."
'Uighurs are given no due process'
Several Xinjiang researchers told DW they thought it was very "plausible" that the sham trials were being held.
"It fits a larger pattern in which Uighurs are given no due process with no chance to defend themselves and are disappeared at the whim of bureaucrats and party members," according to Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at Nottingham University in the UK.
"If this is indeed happening it shows that there is some awareness on the part of officials on the ground that they are having to reach to find crimes that people are engaged in."
DW also interviewed relatives of Uighurs detained across Xinjiang, many of whom were transferred from re-education camps to prison. In some cases, they seem to be shuttled between re-education camps and prisons. One woman based in Germany said her relatives had been sentenced twice — and sent to prisons, only to be transferred back to a re-education camp. "They seem to be playing games with the detainees," she told DW.
Many relatives were unsure whether their family members had undergone a trial in the camps. Contacting family members abroad is enough to risk detention in Xinjiang, so they had to piece together their loved ones' fates over the course of months, as snippets of information were passed on by friends, colleagues or other family members, who reached out to them at great personal risk.
Their stories corroborate that the sham trials seem to be part of a wider strategy aimed at emptying out several of the re-education camps, following international criticism, while prisons were filling up.
Some prisoners released into forced labor, others remain in camps
According to Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, there are three categories of re-education camps: Those with minimum security, which seem to have been built with the goal of reintegrating detainees back into society and have a strong vocational training element. Secondly, there are medium-security facilities, where detainees spend three to five years but are eventually released. Finally, Ruser says, there are the maximum-security facilities, where detainees are locked up indefinitely, "with no intention of ever letting them back into society again" — an extrajudicial form of detention.
Ruser, who is an expert in the analysis of satellite imagery, says that starting in late 2018 and throughout 2019, many low-level security facilities were either decommissioned or de-securitized: watchtowers and fencing were removed, as were some of the external barriers. This, he says, was to allow for a better flow of labor from the camps to the workforce. Many detainees are forced to work in factories, either in commuting distance of former camps or across and even outside of Xinjiang.
At the same time, Ruser has observed that the facilities with the highest level of security are still operational and have, in many cases, even expanded substantially since 2018, indicating that many detainees have not been released.
DW is unable to determine whether detainees were indeed sent to prison following the sham trials — or to one of the maximum-security re-education camps. As one former detainee said succinctly: "When someone disappears, you can't ask where they were sent."
A re-education camp, she said drily, "is not a place where you can ask questions."
Detainees started disappearing after trial
One thing though is clear: Soon after the trials, detainees started disappearing: Some were taken at night, shackled, blindfolded and marched away; others were called from the classroom, never to return.
But here, too, there was a pattern: Only those with lengthy prison terms, more than 10 years, disappeared — all of them prisoners, the four former inmates agree, who had confessed to religious acts, such as praying regularly or acting as an unofficial imam.
This is corroborated by researchers and activists who say imams and those deemed religious are more likely to be sent to prison, sometimes for decades, most likely as they are considered "irreformable."
Others were sent to labor camps, like one detainee who told DW she was forced to work in a glove factory. It was one of many factories that, through a government-sponsored scheme, researchers say have sprung up in villages across Xinjiang, some of which produce for foreign companies and supply chains.
Others are released into a draconian house arrest — their every movement monitored, their freedom of movement strictly curtailed.
"You are not allowed to move or travel freely, you cannot talk to other people, you cannot go to crowded places, you cannot visit your relatives," one former detainee told DW. "You can only stay at home and go to the village administration office," he said.
On several occasions, he and his wife were forced to publicly admit to their "crimes" in front of hundreds of people: He was forced, he says, to praise the Communist Party and thank it for the opportunity he was given to receive an education and change his ways — even though, he says, he did not learn a thing during his time in the camp.
Another detainee who was released into house arrest was forced to host various party members every week. She would be expected to cook for her overnight guests and treat them with respect. Living alone, having to host both men and women she was not related to, made her feel deeply uncomfortable, she says.
Every morning, she says, she had to attend a flag-raising ceremony, followed by seemingly endless political meetings and Chinese language classes. "It was exhausting," she says. "I was so tired all the time."
Detainees exhibit signs of major trauma
Eventually, all four detainees were allowed to leave China — most likely, because they had relatives in Kazakhstan who were campaigning on their behalf, and two held Kazakh citizenship or residency.
Their experience has left deep emotional and physical scars. All of the former inmates DW spoke to suffered from obvious post-traumatic stress disorder, including memory loss and insomnia. During the interviews, they alternated between rage and tears, as they recalled their ordeals, which included interrogations and sexual abuse. One woman told DW that every night, over the course of several months, she had been forced to pick up female detainees from a small room and accompany them to the showers.
While she was too scared to talk to the women, she said it was clear what they had been through: they had been raped by the guards. It is an allegation that Uighur activists have raised before.
Another woman told DW she had been beaten severely in the stomach during an interrogation and has been unable to get pregnant ever since. "My husband says I've changed, I'm a different person." Before, she used to love socializing and parties. "But now I've started hating people." She told DW of fits of seemingly unexplainable rage and chronic exhaustion.
A male detainee told DW of a similar feeling of emptiness: "I don't have any feelings towards my relatives or my children, I used to love my children very much, but now I don't feel anything anymore."
He had, he said after a pause, "lost all interest in living."