Uyghur County Has Highest Prison Rate on Earth: Interview With AUTWA’s Ramila Chanisheff

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Currently, Konasheher county in southern East Turkestan has the highest imprisonment rate in the world. One out of every 25 of its local Uyghur citizens is detained within the China-run prison system.

Beijing, however, refers to the region as Shufu county, which it situates in its far western province of Xinjiang.

The understanding that the Chinese Communist Party is imprisoning so many of the Indigenous majority Muslim population in their own land has come via leaked data that made its way to the Associated Press, which verified the information before release.

Most of the Uyghur people who’ve been locked up in the county, which isn’t too far from the ancient city of Kashgar, were arrested in 2017. The average sentence being served is nine years. And most have been convicted of terrorism or religious extremism – or basically for being Muslim.

The CCP commenced its occupation of the region in 1949. It’s since subjected the Uyghurs to an ever-increasingly oppressive rule.

And this has only escalated since 2016, when Chen Quanguo, the party secretary who turned Tibet into one of the planet’s most repressed regions, was provided with a new target to crush.

Mass incarceration

At the same time Chinese authorities in Konasheher county set about imprisoning so many local Muslims, Chen rolled out a system of political re-education camps, in which around a million Uyghur people were imprisoned without charge or trial.

The region that borders Central Asian nations, which share more culturally with the Turkic Uyghur population than do the Han Chinese, formed a key part of the ancient Silk Road, and it’s also serving as the launch pad for Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative.

Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the initiative in 2013. It involves establishing a modern-day Silk Road trading route via a vast network of roads beginning in the nation’s east but connecting with the rest of the globe via the Uyghur homelands, known locally as East Turkestan.

So, while Beijing has always seen Xinjiang as of key importance due to its vast natural resources and as a strategic border zone, the CCP has been increasingly cracking down on the local population of late in a genocidal attempt to hold ultimate control over the increasingly significant area.

Stop the genocide

As Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association (AUTWA) president Ramila Chanisheff points out, the leaked documents reveal the data for only one of Xinjiang’s 99 counties, and it’s likely these figures are mirrored right across the region.

Chanisheff also stresses that for those local Uyghurs who aren’t suffering incarceration, they’re now living within a vast surveillance network that’s also been rolled out since 2016, which consists of CCTV and online monitoring, as well as a grid-style network of police checkpoints.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to AUTWA’s Ramila Chanisheff about the implications of the newly leaked data, how the repressions against her people have only been growing since the international community has taken notice, and why real sanctions hold the answer.

Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women's Association president Ramila Chanisheff
Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women's Association president Ramila Chanisheff

Konasheher county currently has the highest imprisonment rate on the planet. One in 25 Uyghurs are currently incarcerated on terrorism charges.

While Chinese rule has always included grave repressions for the Uyghur people, going back a decade ago, there was nothing like this level of imprisonment. And there has been no show of any terrorist activity.

So, in your opinion, Ramila, how did it get to the point that this county in a remote part of the world has such a high imprisonment rate in terms of your people?

It got to this point because it’s a majority Uyghur population in the region.

This leaked document is only about one county. So, you can imagine if there were other documents– those not leaked or otherwise shared – where we could see the imprisonment rates in other counties within East Turkestan, the numbers would be horrendous as well.

It is because the population is there. It’s to further suppress, repress and hold the people down. That is all the reasoning that I can see.

This list of the names of the Konasheher prisoners was provided to Xinjiang scholar Gene Bunin by an anonymous Han Chinese citizen who opposes Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs, and it eventually made its way to the Associated Press.

Most of the people on the list were arrested in 2017 around the time the internment camps were rolled out. And most were charged with terrorism or religious extremism.

How would you say the CCP has been using the majority Uyghur religion of Islam against your people?

Oppression and occupation of the people of the region has been happening for decades, but they’ve been weaponising Islam since 9/11.

The Chinese Communist regime could use terrorism with impunity – without the rest of the world saying anything – as terrorism is synonymous with being Muslim at the international level.

So, China has used this to its own benefit to further oppress, further imprison and further put these people through so-called re-education camps.

Faith has played a huge role, unfortunately, as it’s used as a weapon against us. And the rest of the world has just kept quiet, because as soon as the word terrorism comes up, it seems that it will step back and say that’s alright. That is really what it has said.

And as you said, there hasn’t been any terrorism in the area. Even the incidents that they claim were terrorist activity can all be questioned. And unfortunately, we will never know the truth about how those events happened.

So, pre-9/11 there wasn’t such a focus on the Uyghur people being Muslim as a reason for repressions?

There has always been oppression of the Uyghur people since 1949. But not to this extent.

Since 9/11, with the word terrorism being synonymous with Muslim, it has taken it to another level of oppression and imprisonment for the Uyghur people.

What else would you say these leaked documents tell us?

That Uyghurs are definitely being systematically locked up in the re-education system. They are imprisoned for trumped up charges, such as having a beard. And if you aren’t locked up in these re-education camps, then you have a family member that is.

But if you’re not locked up in these camps, you’re locked up in your house. You are forever being watched whether that’s at checking stations or via CCTV or these applications on your phone, which can monitor your every word, step and every movement in East Turkestan.

After five years of rolling out repressive policies in Tibet, CCP secretary Chen Quanguo was transferred to Xinjiang in late 2016 with the aim of administering with the same iron fist.

But this came at a time after China had already been progressively tightening its grip in the region. So, while CCP rule has always been oppressive, when would you say it started to worsen this century?

Since Xi Jinping came to power. We all know that China had opened up its borders and economy to the world when former leaders were in power.

But since Xi Jinping has come in, he wants to be a world dominant leader, and since 2016, he’s taken this to a whole new level with technology, power and money.

Xi Jinping wants to be part of the rest of the world, and his One Belt One Road initiative has really taken it to a different level.

Here in Australia, we can see its long arm being infiltrated into politics, everyday life, with soft propaganda being very strong.

So, since Xi Jinping has been in power, he has taken it to a whole new level. We’ve been oppressed for decades. Since 1949 it has never let up. But this is a whole new level that we’ve been seeing over the last five to six years.

Part of that whole new level is the internment camps Chen rolled out in early 2017. The understanding that around one million Uyghur people had been imprisoned extralegally took a while to receive international attention. 

But eventually the US government raised the issue significantly. Would you say since the world began to take notice, there has been on the ground improvements for your people in their homeland?

Absolutely not. There has been further repression and oppression. We can see these re-education camps have been turned into prisons.

The camps are coming up at a rate that is incompressible. People are disappearing. Organ harvesting has escalated. And there is forced labour.

China is this world dominating power that holds smaller countries in debt and has a hold over other countries via trade relationships, so if proper sanctions were placed on the country our own economies would suffer.

We’re tied up with China for our livelihood and economy in Australia, as is the rest of the world.

So, China without sanctions will not ease its repression of the Uyghur people and without the rest of the world having an independent view of what’s happening there.

They’ve been getting away with treating the Uyghurs with impunity, as well as other minorities – the 55 different nationals – like the Tibetans and the Mongolians.

Life isn’t getting any better. In fact, life is getting worse, and propaganda is playing a huge role.

The UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet is taking a trip over there. She will not see what’s on the ground though – the truth.

The commissioner will just see what China wants the UN to see. As a journalist, you have no way of getting in there independently and seeing what’s happening.

AUTWA Uyghur

Lastly, Ramila, as discussed, the world first heard news of one million Uyghurs being held without charge or trial within political indoctrination camps in late 2017. This has been accompanied by growing repressions in everyday civilian life.

And as you say, five years on, things aren’t getting any better, they’re just getting worse. So how is positive change going to come about?

Change will only come when there are sanctions in place. If the US, Australia and every other ally comes together and works to diversify our economies and our trade to different countries, we can then hold China to account.

Sanctions are the only way that China is going to stop the genocide that it’s committing. Without actual actions being taken, with words being used like condemnation, these human rights abuses aren’t going to stop.

China is too powerful and too closed. It rules with its iron fist and closes its iron walls to every form of information, so without proper sanctions internationally it’s going to keep getting away with what it is doing.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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