From camps to factories: Muslim detainees say China using forced labor

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Petitioners with relatives missing or detained in Xinjiang hold up photos of their loved ones during a press event at the office of the Ata Jurt rights group in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on January 21, 2019. (AFP)
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Gulzira Auelkhan, who spent close to two years trapped in China, speaks during an AFP interview at the office of the Ata Jurt rights group in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on January 21, 2019. (AFP)
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Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva attends an AFP interview at the office of the informal Almaty office of the Atajurt volunteers organisation, which helps victims of China's crackdown in Xinjiang, in Almaty on April 17, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 07 May 2019

From camps to factories: Muslim detainees say China using forced labor

  • More than a million people from Muslim minorities — mostly ethnic Uighurs, but also Kazakhs like Auelkhan, Kyrgyz and Hui — are being held in internment centers across Xinjiang

ALMATY, Kazakhstan: As Gulzira Auelkhan toiled stitching gloves in a factory in China’s troubled Xinjiang region, her managers made no secret of where her production would be sold.
“They told us openly that the gloves will be sold abroad, so we should do a good job,” Auelkhan recalled of a labor stint she says was enforced by Chinese “re-education” officials.
Auelkhan, a 39-year-old Chinese citizen of Kazakh descent, says she was part of a network of mostly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang who pass from what China calls “vocational training centers” to factories where they are forced to work for far less than the local minimum wage.
China says the education centers are part of its efforts to fight terrorism and separatism in Xinjiang — a region populated by mostly Muslim minority groups — and denies any use of forced labor.
But rights groups, and former workers like Auelkhan, say the practice used against Chinese minorities is widespread and at least one foreign company has dropped its Chinese supplier over the concerns.
Auelkhan says she was transferred to the glove factory at the Jiafang industrial estate in Xinjiang’s Yining county after spending 15 months in two different “re-education” facilities.
More than a million people from Muslim minorities — mostly ethnic Uighurs, but also Kazakhs like Auelkhan, Kyrgyz and Hui — are being held in internment centers across Xinjiang, according to a United Nations panel of experts.
Auelkhan has residency rights in Kazakhstan but had traveled to China to see family when she was detained and put into a re-education center.
She said life in the camps was brutal, with residents struck over the head with electrified batons for spending more than two minutes in the bathroom.

So even though they were not free to leave, it was an improvement when she and hundreds of other camp inmates were transferred to work at the factory, Auelkhan told AFP in Kazakhstan’s biggest city Almaty.
“Every day we were taken to and from a dormitory three kilometers from the factory,” she said, hugging the five-year-old daughter she didn’t see for nearly two years.
“When we were studying at the camp they told us we would be taught a trade and work for three months,” Auelkhan said.
Auelkhan said she was paid only 320 yuan ($48/42 euros) for close to two months’ work before her time at the factory was curtailed in December and she was allowed to return to her family in Kazakhstan.
Xinjiang’s average minimum wage ranges between 820 and 1,460 yuan per month, according to official statistics.
Beijing and officials in the region have fiercely denied any connection between the camps and under-paid labor.
A representative of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Government Press Office told AFP by email that there was “no labor contract between Education and Training Centers and enterprises” and “no enterprise obtains labor from training centers.”
But rights groups insist the connection exists and some companies have started taking notice.
In January, Badger Sportswear, a firm based in the US state of North Carolina, announced it would stop sourcing clothing from its Xinjiang supplier Hetian Taida over concerns it was using forced labor linked to the “re-education” campaign.
Auelkhan believes she was only released from forced labor because of a public campaign launched by her husband and supported by a Xinjiang-focused rights group in Almaty.

Originally, re-education officials had told her and other center residents that they would be “at (their) disposal” for at least six months, she said.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan’s government is a Beijing ally that positions itself as “the buckle” in China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road trade and investment agenda, a strategy for infrastructure and development projects throughout Asia, Europe and Africa.
Kazakh diplomats have entered into a dialogue with Beijing over Xinjiang, without publicly mentioning the re-education centers or criticizing China’s policies.
In December a representative of Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said during a briefing that China had allowed more than 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to travel to Kazakhstan as “a kind gesture.”
The ministry refused repeated requests from AFP to clarify the remarks, which lent hope to many in Kazakhstan that they would be able to bring Xinjiang-based relatives over the border to safety.
For most, however, this has been a crushing false dawn.
During a recent visit to the Almaty office of the Ata Jurt rights group dedicated to supporting relatives of the Xinjiang missing, AFP spoke to several Kazakhs who claim their relatives have merely swapped “re-education” for other forms of confinement.
One of them, Aibota Janibek, 34, said her sister Kunikei Janibek telephoned her from Xinjiang in January after months without contact to confirm she had been “assigned a job” by the state at a carpet factory in Shawan county.
Aibota Janibek has since lost touch with her sister, but heard from other relatives that she was transferred from the carpet factory to another position.
“A relative told me she is now at a factory that makes paper towels for airplanes,” Janibek said.


Jailed Wikileaks founder Assange no longer in solitary, health improving

Updated 19 February 2020

Jailed Wikileaks founder Assange no longer in solitary, health improving

  • Assange was moved from solitary confinement in the medical wing to a different part of the prison with 40 other inmates
  • WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson: He has improved thanks to the pressure from his legal team, the general public, and amazingly, actually from other inmates

LONDON: Jailed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is no longer being kept in solitary confinement and his health is improving, his spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told reporters on Tuesday.
Assange, 48, is in Belmarsh high-security prison in London, fighting an extradition request from the United States where he faces 18 counts including conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. He could spend decades in prison if convicted.
His supporters had expressed concern about the state of his health after he appeared confused during a court hearing in October, struggling to recall his age and name and saying he was unable to think properly.
Assange was moved from solitary confinement in the medical wing to a different part of the prison with 40 other inmates after his legal team and prisoners complained that his treatment was unfair, Hrafnsson said.
“I saw him about 10 days ago — he has improved thanks to the pressure from his legal team, the general public, and amazingly, actually from other inmates in Belmarsh Prison to get him out of isolation,” Hrafnsson said ahead of an extradition hearing that starts next week.
Australian-born Assange made global headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.
WikiLeaks later angered the United States by publishing caches of leaked military documents and diplomatic cables.
Assange has consistently presented himself as a champion of free speech being persecuted for exposing abuses of power. But his critics paint him as a dangerous figure complicit in Russian efforts to undermine the West.
He fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for questioning about allegations of sex crimes which have since been dropped. He spent seven years holed up in the embassy until Ecuador decided to stop giving him refuge and he was dragged out last May.
Earlier, a group of doctors representing 117 physicians and psychologists from 18 nations called in a letter for an end to what they described as “the psychological torture and medical neglect of Julian Assange.”
His father, John Shipton, said Assange’s long confinement indoors had damaged his health and feared that sending his son to the US would be akin to a “death sentence.”
“His situation is dire, he has had nine years of ceaseless psychological torture where false accusations are constantly being made,” he told reporters.