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Uighur model films rare glimpse inside China re-education camp

07:06 06 August 2020 Author :  

Until recently, Merdan Ghappar was best known as a face of the Chinese online retail giant Taobao, for whom he starred in clothing videos.

Now the 31-year-old model has become a global posterboy for the suffering of China's Uighur community, after he filmed a video of himself chained to a bed in a detention facility.

Using a mobile phone that he hid from his guards, Mr Ghappar sent out a stream of images to exiled relatives in Europe, offering a rare glimpse inside China's controversial Uighur "re-education" camps.

A video shows him handcuffed to a bed in a bare room, with a steel mesh on the windows and propaganda messages blaring in the background from a loudspeaker.

The images were passed to the BBC by Mr Ghappar's uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar, who lives in the Netherlands. He fled there after taking part in protests a decade ago in China's north-west Xinjiang province, where most of the country's 12 million Uighurs live. 

He decided to publicise the images to show the camp's "brutality", despite the risk that it could lead to official reprisals against his nephew.

Mr Ghappar grew up in Xinjiang but left in 2009, picking up work as a model in Foshan, a city in China's more prosperous south. As a model for Taobao, the world's largest e-commerce website, he was said to earn the equivalent of £1,000 a day.

Two years ago, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison on what friends claim were trumped up charges of cannabis dealing. Then, shortly after his release last November, he was ordered to return to Xinjiang, from where he then ended up in a re-education camp.

More than a million Uighurs are believed to have passed through the camps in recent years, which Beijing insists are voluntary schools to teach Uighurs of the dangers of Islamic extremism. Human rights groups say they are used for torture and abuse, and that China is using fears about Islamic terrorism to eradicate Uighur culture.

In one account, Mr Ghappar describes being among up to 60 people held in an overcrowded police jail in Xinjiang.

"Everyone was wearing a so-called 'four-piece-suit', a black head sack, handcuffs, leg shackles and an iron chain connecting the cuffs to the shackles," he wrote. He claimed that guards threatened to beat him to death when he removed his hood to complain that his handcuffs were on too tight.

In another incident, he said that four young men were beaten in the cells after being arrested for violating Covid 19 social distancing rules.

"They were... beaten until they screamed like babies, the skin on their buttocks split open and they couldn't sit down," he said.

Later, he was held alone in what he described as an "epidemic control centre", from where he appears to have shot the video of himself handcuffed to the bed.

Outside the room, propaganda broadcasts can be heard lecturing against "separatist" forces who wanted an independent Uighur homeland.

Mr Ghappar also photographed what appeared to an official leaflet calling for Uighur children as young as 13 to "repent for their mistakes and voluntarily surrender".

The video suggests that at least some of the re-education camps remain open, despite Beijing claiming that most have since been closed.

The BBC said the Chinese government had declined to answer questions about the treatment of Mr Ghappar, whose messages to his uncle abruptly stopped five months ago. His current whereabouts, his uncle says, are unknown.  / The Telegraph

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