Almaty, Kazakhstan (CNN)Overflowing toilets in overcrowded cells. Food and sleep deprivation. Forced injections.
As she witnessed horror after horror and was told of others, Sayragul Sauytbay, who says she was a former employee inside one of China’s sprawling network of alleged detention camps in Xinjiang province, vowed to one day tell the world what she saw.
“I knew that all people there were not guilty of anything,” she said. “I could do nothing to help them avoid suffering. That’s why I decided that one day I would publicize what’s happening there.”
Sauytbay shared startling allegations of torture inside the camp during an interview with CNN in Almaty, Kazakhstan. While former detainees have raised the alarm about abuse they say they’ve faced, Sauytbay is one of a very small number of employees to have spoken out in detail.
“China has lied to the international community when it said these are not concentration camps, not prisons, and that they are teaching Muslims skills and trades,” she said. “That’s not true at all because I saw it with my own eyes.”
Sauytbay says she fled her job in a Xinjiang camp in 2018, escaping to Kazakhstan where she was united with her family briefly before being picked up by Kazakh authorities for crossing into the country with forged documents. She is requesting asylum in the country.
Responding to Sauytbay’s claims, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said she had “twisted facts” about the camps, alleging Sauytbay was still in financial debt in China.
In recent years, China’s government has opened a network of camps in Xinjiang. Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, have been sent to the camps in large numbers.
The US State Department estimates that as many as 2 million people could have passed through the detention system over the past few years.
Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other central Asian ethnic groups have also been placed in the camps.
China denies this. The Chinese government has repeatedly maintained the camps are voluntary “vocational skills education and training centers.”
Some ex-detainees who have managed to leave have told stories of torture and forced political indoctrination, which they claim is due to their Islamic faith.
China tries to thwart CNN probe into detention camps
Policy of sinicization
Sauytbay is an ethnic Kazakh, raised in Xinjiang. In 2016, her husband and two children left the Chinese region for neighboring Kazakhstan, but Sauytbay stayed behind. As a Kazakh who was also a member of the ruling Communist Party, she said her travel was restricted.
She was running a kindergarten when she said the authorities demanded she relocate to one of the camps. Teaching Chinese was ideal for her, they said, because she was fluent in both Kazakh and Chinese.
Upon her arrival, she said she quickly discovered her job would require more than teaching.
“They told me there is a policy of sinicization underway,” she said, referring to the process of making the country’s minorities more like the Han Chinese majority. “They once said, ‘We will turn the best of them into Hans, while repressing and destroying the bad.’ This policy is underway now.”
Sauytbay was told to instruct her classes that they should be loyal to the Communist Party as “Chinese” people.
“They told me to tell them, ‘The Communist Party has led you to this day. The fact that you are living is thanks to the Communist Party. You have made a mistake by failing to know the Chinese language. The lack of your knowledge of the Chinese language is a treachery of the state’,” she said.
This is consistent with the accounts of numerous ex-detainees, including Kairat Samarhan, a former detainee who told CNN he was forced to stand for hours on end, chanting “long live Xi Jinping” in a nod to China’s President.
Rare access inside Xinjiang’s Uyghur camps with China’s state media
Sauytbay gained international notoriety last year after she fled the camp she was working in and made her way to Kazakhstan in an attempt to reunite with her family.
She was captured in May by the Kazakh authorities and charged with illegal entry into Kazakhstan using forged documents to cross the border.
Though the crime is not serious in Kazakhstan, she faced the threat of deportation back to China as she is a Chinese citizen.
Sauytbay and her lawyer argued in court that being sent back would essentially mean a death sentence.
During trial, Sauytbay went into some detail about her time teaching in the camps, describing how she was in a facility predominantly made up of ethnic Kazakhs, totaling about 2,500 people overall. It marked the first time the outside world heard an account from a camp employee.
“I’m a living witness of these concentration camps. That’s why China wants so badly to either get me back or to kill me,” she said.
Kazakh authorities ultimately found Sauytbay guilty but did not immediately deport her. A judge blocked her extradition and gave her a six-month suspended sentence.
Her asylum claim is moving through the court system and has been denied several times already.
Sauytbay and her lawyer told CNN they expected it to eventually reach the country’s supreme court.
But as her legal fight continues, she fears for her life and her family’s safety.
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