Video of Uighur handcuffed to bed in quarantine centre refocuses attention on Chinese persecution

Stills from the video that Merdan Ghappar managed to send to his family in March from inside a coronavirus quarantine centre in Xinjiang. Ghappar, an ethnic Uighur, was taken from his home by authorities in January 2020.
Stills from the video that Merdan Ghappar managed to send to his family in March from inside a coronavirus quarantine centre in Xinjiang. Ghappar, an ethnic Uighur, was taken from his home by authorities in January 2020.

A newly emerged video showing a Uighur former fashion model detained inside a Covid-19 quarantine centre has refocused attention on China’s persecution of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. The video, posted by the BBC on July 5, was filmed by Merdan Ghappar, 31, and sent to his family in March along with text messages describing his captivity. The Observers team spoke to two Uighur activists who analysed the video and accompanying text messages.

In the video, which lasts four and a half minutes, Ghappar slowly and silently pans to show the small room where he is confined. There is a dirt floor, a barred window, a bed and nothing else. Ghappar is handcuffed to his bed. His ankles are swollen and he wears dirty clothes. In the background, a message can be heard playing over a loudspeaker in Mandarin Chinese and Uighur. The message blames “separatist forces” for trying to encourage Uighurs to “believe in Islam to unite”.

In this video, published by BBC, Ghappar films his small quarantine room. He is handcuffed to the bed. Footage courtesy of Ghappar family.

Ghappar is Uighur, a Muslim minority group that has been the target of discrimination and oppression by Chinese officials in recent years. In January 2020, officials took Ghappar from his home in the southern city of Foshan to a police station in Kucha, Xinjiang. He was held for 18 days in a police detention centre, then transferred to a temporary “epidemic prevention centre” where he filmed the video.

In early March, his aunt received the video via WeChat, along with a series of text messages in which Ghappar described his time in the detention centre: “I saw 50–60 people were locked in a small room not 50 metres on the right, women on the left, divided up and locked in cages. And from head to toe, they were all wearing four-piece suits. This so-called four-piece suit was a black cloth bag over the head; handcuffs; shackles; and a steel chain between the handcuffs and the shackles…. The sounds of horrible screams came through, from men and women. It was awful whatever it was, just terrifying. It scared the hell out of the people in the cages.”

In this message, sent to his aunt in March and translated by Georgetown professor James Millward, Ghappar describes the conditions in the detention centre. Read Ghappar’s full testimony here

"They are detaining people so that they can completely control the region."

Alfred Erkin is a Uighur activist residing in the US. His father is imprisoned in Xinjiang. For Erkin, Ghappar’s messages about the detention centre were more telling than the video, because they describe conditions often imposed on Uighur prisoners - conditions that are not only cruel but also conducive to outbreaks of Covid-19.

The more important focus, in my belief, should be his messages about the situation in the actual detention centre. The actual story is very important and very tragic. 

According to a lot of witness testimony, there are no beds in the camps. They tend to have at least 12 people, maybe 30 people inside a cell. They have to take turns sleeping because it’s so crowded. There are cameras and monitors so they can’t speak.

When asked about the video on July 5, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, told Radio Free Asia that he had no knowledge of the situation. Wenbin added that the situation in Xinjiang is not an ethnic or religious issue, but rather a strategy to fight violence, terrorism, separatism, and de-radicalization.

Erkin says it’s a territorial issue.

People are not being detained because of their faith. It really has nothing to do with your faith. It is completely like what is happening in Hong Kong. Like Tibet, the [Xinjiang] region was an autonomous region. And they are detaining people so that they can completely control the region. It’s completely a territorial problem just like Tibet.

This Twitter thread was published on March 9 when Ghappar first sent videos and messages to his family.

“It makes me feel as if we time-traveled back to the Cultural Revolution”

Halmurat Harri Uyghur, a Finland-based doctor and founder of #MeTooUyghur, analyzed Ghappar’s video for the Observers team. 

My biggest question is where he got his phone. I don’t contest the legitimacy of this case but from when he got taken into the detention center in January, it’s at least 30 days to two months time. So how can he hide his phone and charge it? I don’t know. Or, it's possible someone who works for the Chinese system wanted to expose this to the world and just gave him his own phone. If so, their system is starting to crack.

He was handcuffed to the bed, with a loudspeaker announcing that we, Uighurs, were never independent, that this place was part of China. It makes me feel as if we time-traveled back to the Cultural Revolution. This place, the quarantine center, should be a place where they take care of people medically, not a political [tool]. It’s so scary.

Denial and disappearances

Chinese authorities continue to deny the abuse of Uighurs and other minorities, asserting that the camps are actually voluntary reeducation programs against extremism. Independent reporting suggests, however, that over the past three years, authorities have sent as many as 1.8 million people to prisons and internment camps in Xinjiang.

In August 2018, Ghappar was arrested for allegedly selling cannabis and sentenced to 16 months in prison. His friends maintain that the charges were false. Ghappar was released in November 2019.

Ghappar himself was relatively well-assimilated into mainstream Chinese society. He modeled for the Chinese online brand Taobao. However, since Ghappar disappeared, Taobao removed any record of the model from their website. Ghappar no longer appears in any searches on Baidu, China’s best-known search engine, according to Radio Free Asia. Harri Uyghur verified this.

I checked for his other videos and photos that had previously been uploaded to social media. But I couldn’t find them after the BBC report. I should have screenshotted some of those. But from all this material, it is easy to say that he melded into the Han majority society and he speaks Mandarin Chinese well. He actually lived in Guangdong Province, one of the most developed areas of China. He’s not religious, according to his parents. I don’t think he needs vocational training to become someone working in a factory. Even so, Chinese authorities detained him and put him in a concentration camp before finding he had a fever and moving him to this center

Ghappar’s family has not heard from him since the messages in March.

Article by Sophie Stuber