Drone video shows blindfolded, handcuffed prisoners in China's Xinjiang Uyghur region

Screengrabs from a video posted on YouTube Sept. 17, 2019.
Screengrabs from a video posted on YouTube Sept. 17, 2019.

A video showing hundreds of blindfolded and handcuffed prisoners being led off a train appeared on YouTube on Sept. 17. An Australian researcher has shown that the drone footage was filmed in China's Xinjiang province. The video offers a rare glimpse into the Chinese-run "reeducation" centres where huge numbers of the province's Uyghur Muslims are being held.

The video, a screen recording of a drone, garnered more than 460,000 views within a week of being posted. It is the only video posted on the YouTube channel "War on Fear", which was created the day the video was uploaded. The channel provides no specific context for the video and no information about when or where it was filmed. The video caption refers only to "the long-term suppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region."

A researcher named Nathan Ruser, who works for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on security and defence, did some serious sleuthing to verify this video.

“4 days ago a video showing 3-400 detainees handcuffed & blindfolded at a train station in Xinjiang was uploaded to YouTube. In this thread I'll share how I've verified that this video was filmed at Korla (41.8202, 86.0176) on or around August 18th,” Ruser tweeted on September 21.

Step 1: verify the location of the video

Ruser started by identifying the location where the video was filmed. To do this, he looked at the orientation map on the bottom left of the screen, which indicates the drone’s approximate location in regards to a town called Korla. Using the scale indicated on the map, he was able to establish that the drone filmed the video 12.42 kilometres from Korla.

Ruser then used Google Earth to look for a location 12.42 kilometres from Korla that had the elements visible in the video: a white building, trees, train tracks and a parking lot. He eventually found the exact location where the video was filmed: a train station to the west of Korla, near the Yusu Tunshanghu neighbourhood.


Step 2 : verify the date of the video

Ruser then worked to establish exactly when the video was filmed. To do that, he compared the shadows visible in the footage with the shadows that appear on Google Earth satellite images taken on specific dates. He noticed that the orientation and size of the shadows were most similar to the satellite images captured by Google on Sept. 7, 2019.

He then did a series of complex calculations to determine the height of the pole, based on the sun’s elevation and azimuth. Using SunCalc, a tool that can estimate the day and month that a photo or video was taken based on a shadow in the image, he determined that the footage was taken between Aug. 18 and 20, though it isn’t clear what year.

Finally, Ruser had to determine what year the video was filmed. He studied satellite images of the train station taken in different years and noticed several changes. In the video, the parking lot is not paved. Satellite imagery showed that the parking lot was paved in June 2019, so the video was definitely filmed before then. He then found two small bushes in the footage, which weren’t in satellite images from 2017, but did appear in footage from 2018. That’s how he determined that the video was filmed sometime around Aug. 20, 2018.  


Video called "deeply disturbing"

Ruser believes that this footage shows the campaign of repression against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang that began in 2017, even though nothing in the video proves beyond doubt that the men in the video are Uyghurs.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne called the video "deeply disturbing" and said she would continue to press the Chinese government on the issue of mass detention of Uyghurs.


China’s campaign of repression

China blames the Uyghur Muslim minority in its entirety for the actions of the Turkistan Islamic Party, a small terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda that is made up of several hundred people, mostly from the Uyghur diaspora.

The Chinese government is particularly cracking down on Uyghurs who have contacts abroad or who have publicly expressed their faith. The authorities have also targeted Uyghur students abroad and destroyed Uyghur mosques. They’ve also been using the latest technology to keep the population under surveillance.

Numerous reports have documented the persecution of this minority group.

According to the New York Times, local courts in Xinjiang sentenced 230,000 people to prison in 2017 and 2018. Though Xinjiang is home to only 2 percent of China’s population, arrests made in the region represent 22 percent of those made nationally.

Article by Liselotte Mas (@liselottemas).