Updated: Sep 12, 2021
As the first day of the Uyghur Tribunal drew to a close, those in the room were undoubtedly left feeling moved by what they had heard.
Trigger Warning: This article contains stories of rape, sexual assault, sexual violence, torture and other themes that some readers may find distressing.
Today, Friday 4th June marks the first day of initial hearings of the Uyghur Tribunal. The significance of this event cannot be underestimated: the Uyghur community deserve their day in court, to finally have their voices heard. As Sir Geoffrey Nice, chair of the tribunal, explained that several witnesses had to withdraw from giving evidence under sanctions from the PRC, we are reminded of how much is at stake for the Uyghur community.
The first fact witness to give testimony, Qelbinur Sidik, worked as a teacher at one of the so-called ‘re-education camps’ in the Xinjiang region. She detailed her experiences of working in both male and female camps, which were surrounded by high fences of electric wire, with cramped and overcrowded conditions: often 40-50 people would share a cell, with one toilet in the male camps and only a bucket in the female camps. Ms Sidik described the sadistic attitudes of the prison guards, forcing the inmates, whose hands and feet were chained, to crawl in and out of their cells, ‘treated like less than dogs’. When asked to testify about her experience of the female camp, Ms Sidik was reduced to tears as she recalled hearing from a close friend that women taken for interrogation in the basement of the camp were brutally raped and tortured. She recalled seeing the women in physical pain and suffering after their ordeal, having difficulty sitting and standing. Her graphic and emotional account of such atrocity was simply harrowing. Thinking about her own daughter, she shared heartfelt words:
“The things I have seen and experienced, I can never forget, not even for one day. I am a woman myself and have a daughter. I don’t wish for anyone to suffer like that”
Ms Sidik also shared details of having to host a male Chinese official, as part of the CCP’s ‘Family Together’ policy. The man would abuse the freedom he had and hug, kiss and caress her, in front of her own husband. Despite the upset and anger she felt, all Ms Sidik could do was smile and present herself as happy and welcoming.
Ms Sidik returned to her account of working in a male ‘re-education camp’, in which the prisoners were known only as ‘detainees’ or by the numbers on their prison uniforms. She recalls teaching Mandarin as well as ‘Red Songs’, such as the national anthem and other songs that praised the CCP. When not in class, the men were regularly taken for interrogation, during which they would be tortured; some unable to return to the classroom for an entire month due to the severity of their injuries. Many of the men released from the camps developed serious and long-term physical and mental disabilities. Though the camp was branded as having an educational purpose, there were no exams to assess the ‘students’, and nobody was ever released.
In the final part of her testimony, Ms Sidik shared that she was forced to undergo a process of sterilisation: she only had one daughter. She was eventually granted permission to leave China, as a Native Uzbek, but her husband was forced to stay, met with the words ‘you are Uyghur - do not even dream of leaving’.
Following the testimony by Qelbinur Sidik was Omir Bekali, who provided the tribunal with an account of his experiences at one of the camps, in particular the horrific methods of torture he was subjected to. Mr Bekali recalled men in the camp regularly disappearing, only to be replaced by newcomers shortly after: the men who were especially strong and healthy were usually the ones to disappear. The room fell utterly silent as Mr Bekali demonstrated how he was chained into position for seven months straight, so tightly that he could not stand straight, using a chain he had brought to the tribunal with him. Mr Bekali shared details of several experiences of torture at the hands of the prison guards, including the ‘tiger chair’ (he was chained to a chair and beaten with electric prods), and being hung from the ceiling and beaten all over his body. He also recalled the guards’ use of the ‘water prison’, in which an inmate would be submerged into water from the neck down and hung from the ceiling. Mr Bekali shared the sobering fact that even when the men were tortured, the guards ensured that their internal organs were not damaged. This, coupled with the regular in-depth medical examinations Mr Bekali underwent, perhaps points to the issue of organ harvesting, another crime of which the PRC is accused. Mr Bekali remembered his thoughts at the time of experiencing such torture:
“When such an experience is so horrific and non-stop, it makes you wonder whether those people were human”
When Mr Bekali had a visit from Kazak officials, who read him his basic rights, he decided to speak out against the actions of the guards. As punishment, he was detained in solitary confinement for one month. His family also suffered after his transgression, branded a terrorist family, and all of his communication with them was cut off.
In the afternoon session of the tribunal, Sayragul Sawutbay gave her testimony of the camps, which she explained are used to brainwash the Uyghur population. Mrs Sawutbay focused in particular on the police of the camps, who were given unlimited power from Beijing and thus allowed to do whatever they wished: ‘they beat girls whenever they like’. She shared a particularly harrowing account of witnessing the mass, planned rape of a girl by masked police, with an audience of around a hundred inmates. She also gave details of the ‘black room’, the only room in the camp without a camera, equipped with tools such as an electric chair, saws, and sharpened tools, used for torture designed to make the inmates suffer. She remembers hearing the screams and cries for help by those who were taken to this room: some of them never returned.
Mrs Sawutbay emphasised the PRC’s interest in women’s reproductive health, explaining that they want most women to become infertile, and to pick the healthy women for forced reproduction or organ harvesting: “the healthy women had a tick in a box next to their names”. Women were given various injections and pills to prevent them from having children, and ultimately to destroy their health.
Like most of the witnesses present today, Mrs Sawutbay shared her distress over the inhumanity of the prison guards and Chinese officials running the camps. She remembers them testing those who witnessed the public rape to see if they reacted. In her judgement, this was a test to see if they had given up on humanity: the answer was yes.
As the first day of the Uyghur Tribunal drew to a close, those in the room were undoubtedly left feeling moved by what they had heard. Many of the witnesses expressed their gratitude to the tribunal for listening to their stories and for giving them a voice. This serves as a poignant reminder that the Uyghur Genocide is slowly and brutally destroying real individuals, with real lives and real stories to tell.
Evie is an English Literature undergraduate at UCL, and an avid reader and bookworm. Alongside her work in Holocaust Education, she loves to write about books as a way into better understanding current affairs and contemporary issues. She is currently serving as Publications Manager at Yet Again, and President of Pi Media, UCL's student publication.