DABANCHENG, China (AP) — The Uyghur inmates sat in uniform rows with their legs crossed in lotus position and their backs ramrod straight, numbered and tagged, gazing at a television playing grainy black-and-white images of Chinese Communist Party history.
This is one of an estimated 240 cells in just one section of Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng, seen by Associated Press journalists granted extraordinary access during a state-led tour to China’s far west Xinjiang region. The detention center is the largest in the country and possibly the world, with a complex that sprawls over 220 acres — making it twice as large as Vatican City. A sign at the front identified it as a “kanshousuo,” a pre-trial detention facility.
Chinese officials declined to say how many inmates were there, saying the number varied. But the AP estimated the center could hold roughly 10,000 people, based on satellite imagery and the cells and benches seen during the tour, and many more if crowded. The AP was the first Western media organization allowed in.
This site suggests that China still holds and plans to hold vast numbers of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in detention. Satellite imagery shows that new buildings stretching almost a mile long were added to the Dabancheng detention facility in 2019.
China has described its sweeping lockup of a million or more minorities over the past four years as a “war against terror,” after a series of knifings and bombings by a small number of extremist Uyghurs. Among its most controversial aspects were the so-called vocational “training centers” – described by former detainees as brutal internment camps.
Under heavy international criticism, China said in 2019 that all the occupants had “graduated.” But the AP’s visit to Dabancheng, satellite imagery and interviews with experts and former detainees suggest that while many “training centers” were indeed closed, some like this one were simply converted into prisons or pre-trial detention facilities. Many new facilities have also been built, including a new 85-acre detention center down the road from No. 3 in Dabancheng that went up over 2019, satellite imagery shows.
The changes seem to be an attempt to move from the makeshift and extrajudicial “training centers” into a more permanent system of prisons and pre-trial detention facilities justified under the law. While some Uyghurs have been released, others have simply been moved into this prison network.
However, researchers say innocent people were often thrown in detention for things like going abroad or attending religious gatherings. Darren Byler, an anthropologist studying the Uyghurs at the University of Colorado, noted that many prisoners have not committed “real crimes by any standards,” and that they go through a “show” trial without due process.
“We’re moving from a police state to a mass incarceration state. Hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared from the population,” said Darren Byler, an anthropologist studying the Uyghurs at the University of Colorado. “It’s the criminalization of normal behavior.”