Uighur model sends rare video from Chinese detention centre

Samuel Osborne
·3-min read
Mr Ghappar was taken to what he said was an epidemic control centre where he was handcuffed to the bed and from where he filmed the video: BBC
Mr Ghappar was taken to what he said was an epidemic control centre where he was handcuffed to the bed and from where he filmed the video: BBC

Rare footage taken inside a Chinese detention centre has given further insight into the conditions faced by the country’s predominantly Muslim Uighur minority when they are detained.

Merden Ghappar, a 31-year-old model who worked for Chinese online retailer Taobao, sent the video to his family, who passed it on to the BBC.

In the video, which Mr Ghappar filmed “selfie-style” with his right hand, he can be seen in a room with dingy walls, his left hand cuffed to the bed, the sole piece of furniture in the otherwise empty room.

As he pans the camera around the cell, bars and wire mesh can be seen covering the windows and a public announcement can be heard over the public address system about the history and politics of the Xinjiang region.

Mr Ghappar sent the footage to his family earlier this year, but they have not heard from him in five months.

Up to one million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are thought to be held in China‘s “re-education” detention centres in Xinjiang, according to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Abuses alleged to be taking place within the centres include mass arbitrary detentions, forced labour and torture.

However, China denies any allegations of mistreatment and says the camps are intended to provide vocational training and combat extremism.

In text messages forwarded to the BBC alongside his video, Mr Ghappar said the footage was taken while he was detained in a small room in what he described as an epidemic control centre as the coronavirus raged through China.

Mr Ghappar was living in the city of Foshan and working as a model when he was imprisoned for 16 months for selling cannabis, an allegation his friends said was false.

Soon after he was released in January this year, he was put on a flight back to his home city of Kucha in Xinjiang where police said he needed to complete a routine registration procedure.

After arriving in Xinjiang, he said he was kept in a police jail where he said detainees were made to wear what he referred to as a “four-piece suit” consisting of a head sack, handcuffs, leg shackles and an iron chain connecting those shackles to the cuffs.

When he complained about how tight the handcuffs were, he said one police officer threatened to beat him to death.

He said he could hear hearing the constant sound of screaming coming from elsewhere in the prison. ”One time I heard a man screaming from morning until evening,” he wrote.

At the height of China’s coronavirus crisis, Mr Ghappar said four young men who were caught playing a ball game outside were brought to the prison and beaten “until they screamed like babies” and “the skin on their buttocks split open”.

Mr Ghappar was later taken to what he said was an epidemic control centre where he was handcuffed to the bed and from where he filmed the video.

He said he was allowed to take his belongings into the room and the authorities did not notice his mobile phone, allowing him to film his conditions and send texts to the outside world.

Mr Ghappar’s uncle, Abdulhakin Ghappar, said he had been in regular contact with his nephew before he was detained.

Abdulhakim, who lives in Amsterdam, said he believes that communication and his protests against Chinese human rights abuses are the reason his nephew was imprisoned.

While Mr Ghapper’s family fear releasing the video may increase the punishment he faces, they told the BBC it was their last hope to highlight his case and the conditions under which Uighurs are suffering.

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