WASHINGTON — Over one million Uighur Muslims are being held in Chinese concentration camps for arbitrary reasons as the international community largely remains silent about the ethnic minority's ongoing persecution, a believer told hundreds gathered for the first day of the U.S. State Department's Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Tuesday.
Tahrir Hamut, a prominent Uighur poet and filmmaker who was sentenced to three years in a Chinese concentration camp in the mid 1990s, was among the first persecuted believers to give their testimonies at the first-ever State Department ministerial addressing international religious freedom.
Speaking on the plight of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang Region in Northwest China, Hamut wasted no time in detailing just how severe the persecution is for his community, stating that the government is using surveillance technology and forced DNA collection to exert control over the everyday lives of Uighurs.
"Since late 2016, China has turned the Uighur region into a police state — an open prison," he said through a translator.
Uighurs, a Turkish ethnic group primarily existing in Xinjiang, has been targeted by the Chinese government since 1949, Hamut explained. However, he added that the government's persecution of the ethnic group has intensified greatly since the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001 under the guise of fighting terrorism.
"The Chinese government is using advanced surveillance technologies, such as AI, voice and face recognition, mass surveillance of cell phones and forced DNA collection to control Uighurs' daily lives," Hamut said. "There are unprecedented restrictions on the religious lives of Uighurs. The government has confiscated and burned religious books and demolished mosques. Religious activities that were once legal are now illegal and an excuse for persecution."
Hamut said that the communist government's oppression of Uighurs has been based largely on their ethnicity.
As previous estimate has suggested that over 120,000 Uighur Muslims were being held in labor camps across China's western border, Hamut suggested that north of a million Uighurs are being detained in such camps.
"The Chinese government has also sent Uighurs to so-called re-education camps, which are concentration camps," Hamut stated. "Currently, more than 1 million Uighurs are held in these camps. There is no due process. No one knows why they are detained, where they are kept, if and when they are released. We hear that people are suffering from illness and die in these camps."
Hamut recalled his own experience in one of these camps.
"In 1996, I was detained while I was leaving China to go to Turkey and sentenced to three years in a labor camp on a false charge of trying to provide sensitive materials to overseas forces," said Hamut. "At that time, there were about 350 prisoners at the camp where I served. The majority of them were Uighurs. About 230 were political prisoners charged for their religious beliefs or political views. When I was released, I lost my teaching job. I had to live in a country in which the regime viewed me as an enemy."
Currently, Hamut fears that the Chinese government will likely begin killing detained Uighurs in a Nazi-like fashion.
"I believe the Chinese government is likely to carry out mass killings of Uighurs in concentration, like the Nazis did to the Jewish people," he stressed, adding that the Chinese government began confiscating the passports of Uighurs in March 2017.
Additionally, Hamut said that Uighurs with a history of international travel have been labeled as "untrustworthy" and sent to concentration camps.
Hamut and his family, however, were able to leave the country in August 2017 in order to receive medical treatment for his daughter.
"Soon after we arrived to the United States, local police detained two of my brothers-in-law in retribution," he explained. "Despite this, I still share what I have seen in the region with international media. This has led to the detention of one of my brothers. I can not make contact with my relatives at home. I don't know whether they are alive or not."
Despite the plight of the Uighur people, Hamut stated that international governments are not doing enough to pressure China to end its horrific persecution of the targeted ethnic community.
He explained that the international community is "silenced" when it comes to China's actions against the Uighur community and added that the silence has only "emboldened China to double down on its oppression."
"I call on the international community, governments and organizations, to pay attention to and raise concerns about the Uighur situation," he stated. "Urge the Chinese government to respect Uighurs' human rights and support the protection of Uighurs' religious and ethnic identities and self determination."
On Monday, Thomas Farr, the founding director of the State Department's International Religious Freedom Office who now serves as president of the Religious Freedom Institute, offered his thoughts during a panel session on Capitol Hill about how the United States can better pressure China on the issue of religious freedom and the persecution of ethnic minorities like the Uighurs.
Instead of pressuring the Chinese to do better on religious freedom as a whole, Farr suggested that the U.S. government diplomats should tell the Chinese to "back off" of groups like the Uighurs for the betterment of China's economic growth.
"What we need to do is make the chinese understand that we don't have to call it religious freedom," Farr said. '"Back off!' — how is that? 'Back off the Tibetan Buddhists and the Uighur Muslims. Guess what will happen? More sustained economic growth.' We start with that, ask what do they want? Not, what do we want?"
"For the Chinese, among the top two of three [national priorities] is going to be sustained economic growth because if they don't get that they are in big trouble," Farr continued. "Back off and it will help you get what you want. Every country in the world needs sustained economic growth. So, we can begin to incorporate that into what we do. That is one of the reasons I am so excited about [Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom] Sam Brownback, he is beginning to talk like this. It will require training [within the State Department] but we can do that."