Inside Chinese camps thought to detain a million Muslim Uighurs

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MOYU COUNTY, China — In a classroom in far western China, a dozen adults wearing white lab coats sit at a long table, textbooks on animal husbandry open in front of them.

The din of chickens and geese and a bucolic mural of cows belie the fact that the students are in one of a vast network of camps in Xinjiang, a region that is home to more than 10 million Muslim Uighurs.

Around 10 percent of the Uighur population of Xinjiang is locked up, according to the U.S. government and human rights organizations. The Chinese Communist Party maintains these centers are a crucial part of its effort to counter terror, extremism and separatism.

Bu’ayixiemu Abulizi, director of the Moyu County Vocational Education and Training Center in Hotan Prefecture in the southwestern corner of Xinjiang, made it clear the role of the centers is to change the minds and thoughts of those who are forced to live there.

“If we leave the terrorism thoughts to be developed, it is very easy to have riots or other issues. We prevent this from happening,” he told NBC News in early September. “Our center is to prevent terrorism thoughts from happening.”

International rights groups charge that Chinese authorities are actually engaging in mass arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch, a non-profit group based in New York, has alleged “rampant abuses,” including torture and unfair trials of the population.

Gay McDougall, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, accused China last year with turning Xinjiang into “something resembling a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone.”

Members of China’s Uighur minority attend a class at a vocational education and training center in Moyu County.Keir Simmons / NBC News

The Chinese government gave NBC News rare access to three of what they call “vocational education and training centers” where they say Uighurs receive lessons in law and culture, Mandarin, and skills like shop-keeping, hospitality, animal husbandry and e-commerce.

Government minders brought NBC News to two camps in Hotan Prefecture and one in Kashgar, in the northwest of the province. NBC spoke to the director of each camp, and Uighur detainees were made available for interview, always with government and camp officials present.

At the camps NBC News visited, dormitories were sparsely furnished with few personal possessions. Some classrooms were equipped with computers and others with musical instruments. It is impossible to know whether conditions in the camps were changed or improved for the purpose of NBC’s visit, or whether conditions in other camps are similar.

The government did not answer NBC News’ questions on how many centers there are in the region, how many people have passed through them or how many are currently being held there. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, estimates that there are 143 camps currently detaining Uighurs.

In front of minders, farmer Abliza Hijgiabula, admitted his wrongdoing.

“As a Chinese citizen, I have broken Chinese laws and regulations, I committed a crime, I betrayed my country, I broke the law and wasn’t grateful for the good policies,” said the 41-year-old farmer, who was imprisoned for six years for preaching separatism.

Hijgiabula, who spoke with NBC News during a class in animal husbandry, said he had been released from prison and sent to the camp, where he had spent a year.

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