A former Xinjiang prisoner describes life inside China’s detention camps – TechCrunch

for 10 months In 2018, Ovalbek Turdakun was incarcerated in one of China’s most notorious detention camps, where he was tortured, subjected to horrific conditions, and under constant surveillance.

In a makeshift courtroom inside the detention camp where he was held, Turdakun was not allowed to speak and was forced to sign documents that he did not have time to read. As a former law student, he knew the court was not following proper legal process, but was told nonetheless that the court’s decision would bring “great things” for him and that he would study and live for free.

Turdakun is a Chinese passport holder and an ethnic Kyrgyz, one of several ethnic groups, including Kazakhs, Tajiks and Uyghurs, who have been indicted on dubious, if not fabricated, charges and detained in vast detention camps in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China where most ethnic groups live. Beijing calls them education and vocational centers and says they are for combating Islamic extremism. But Turdakun is a Christian, and investigators say he, too, has been arbitrarily targeted and detained by the state.

United Nations watchdogs say China has imprisoned at least a million of its own citizens in detention camps in recent years, but the number is believed to be higher. The Biden administration declared China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities “genocide,” though Beijing has long denied allegations of human rights abuses.

Turdakun can only tell this story after US immigration authorities granted him and his family advanced parole, a temporary immigration status that allowed them to enter the United States, after lawmakers in Congress They lobbied on his behalf. Turdakun and his wife, Zhyldyz Uraalieva, and his son arrived in Washington, DC, on April 8.

“There is no freedom inside that place,” Turdakun said in an interview with TechCrunch, speaking through a translator, in Washington on Tuesday. Even after being released under house arrest-like conditions, Turdakun said police officers would see him with facial recognition and harass him every time he left the house.

IPVM Government Director Conor Healy (left), Ovalbek Turdakun, his son, and his wife Zhyldyz (right) in Kyrgyzstan, before arriving in the United States in April. Image credits: Conor Healy/provided

As a former prisoner, Turdakun is one of the few people with a firsthand account from inside China’s detention camps, including rare insight into how the Chinese government uses technology, surveillance and facial recognition to oppress millions. of Xinjiang residents, which US lawmakers will use to investigate human rights abuses in China and Chinese companies supplying surveillance technology to the camps.

A letter seen by TechCrunch that was sent by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey in support of Turdakun’s early parole case said his knowledge will provide vital evidence about the “use of technology provided by Chinese companies like Hikvision to facilitate serious violations of internationally recognized rights. human rights by the Chinese government.

Smith, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, is a vocal critic of China’s congressional human rights record, including its use of surveillance technology to carry out human rights violations. Senator Marco Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also reportedly supported Turdakun’s immigration effort.

Hikvision is one of the world’s largest providers of video surveillance cameras, earning around $10 billion in 2020. A year earlier, it was one of several Chinese tech companies added to the U.S. government’s list of economic sanctions entities. US components without government approval, citing their role in enabling human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Most notably, successive US administrations have alleged that Beijing relies heavily on companies like Hikvision, but also Dahua, Huawei, SenseTime and others, to supply the surveillance technology it uses to monitor Xinjiang’s population across the region and also in its many detention camps.

Before arriving in the United States, Turdakun described the conditions of his detention, brutal interrogations and forced medical procedures in a series of video interviews recorded by Conor Healy, director of the government at the IPVM video surveillance news site. In December, Healy joined Turdakun and his family in Kyrgyzstan, where they had been for the past year, to help them obtain their immigration papers to the United States, amid fears that Kyrgyz authorities could deport the family. to China, Healy told TechCrunch. .

In one of the video interviews shared with TechCrunch, Healy showed Turdakun a photo of the Hikvision logo, which the former prisoner immediately recognized, saying it was the same logo on cell cameras in the detention camp and scattered throughout. the city.

Speaking to TechCrunch on Tuesday, Turdakun described the cells where he would be held with two dozen other prisoners for months and how the cameras, all marked with Hikvision logos, were “always on and watching,” he said. If the cameras saw someone speak, a booming voice told them not to speak.

He described how detainees spent hours in silence, forced by cameras, and had little human contact outside of cells for prolonged periods; often the door was left closed for long periods of time and food was pushed through a slot in the door. Even to move a few feet to use the hole-shaped toilet he described, you’d still have to raise your hand and ask permission “because of the cameras watching, always,” Turdakun said.

Turdakun was released in November 2018 on similar terms to house arrest, where he would be monitored 24 hours a day from the GPS tracker on his wrist that could only be unlocked with a special key. Although he was allowed to leave his home and travel around his small town, he described constant harassment from the authorities.

“Every time,” he emphasized when asked again.

“The cameras would see me and send alarms,” ​​he said, describing the use of facial recognition in his neighborhood. “The cameras are on [6 feet] high, also Hikvision, and they are on all the sidewalks,” he said. “There are so many that they don’t need to change the directions of the cameras. No matter how long the path is, even the shortest path will have cameras. The entire entire city has cameras watching.”

TechCrunch was unable to independently verify Turdakun’s account, which is consistent with other, albeit rare, accounts from survivors of Xinjiang detention camps. During the interview, Turdakun showed a sketch he drew outlining the layout of the detention camp, which corresponds to satellite images of the camp where he was held.

In an emailed statement via a public relations firm specializing in crisis management, Hikvision said it “takes all human rights reporting very seriously” but declined to provide the name of a company spokesperson. .

Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, denied the allegations in an emailed statement.

Human rights lawyers say the former prisoner’s testimony will provide important evidence for the case brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. British lawyer Rodney Dixon, who heads the team of lawyers collecting evidence of human rights abuses by China, said in a letter supporting Turdakun’s early parole that it was “vital” that he testify in future proceedings.

Turdakun told TechCrunch that he wants more people to know about the conditions in Xinjiang.

“Coming to the United States and being peaceful and safe has been a goal for our family for a long time,” he said.

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