LONDON — The cries echoing off the walls of the jail frightened and weakened him in equal measure, Mamattursun Omer said.
“I didn't see, but I could hear the unbearable screams coming from both sides of the corridor,” the former Uighur detainee said, recalling a period starting in 2017 that he says he spent in government custody inside the Xinjiang region of northwest China.
Omer, 29, whose home now is a small rented studio in Istanbul, told NBC News in a video interview he lives in fear the Chinese government will kill him.
Parts of Omer’s account — together with that of roughly two dozen others so far — have been included in a complaint lodged at the International Criminal Court by two organizations of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group historically living in what is now northwest China. The organizations accuse the Chinese government and specific senior officials of crimes against humanity, torture and genocide.
It is the first time members of the minority group have sought to use international law to hold Beijing accountable for their alleged mistreatment, including mass internment and repressive measures against their religion.
A similar litany of allegations formed the basis of fresh visa restrictions that President Donald Trump’s administration introduced in July for several Chinese officials, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo citing “forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control” in the autonomous territory of Xinjiang.
The broader allegations filed with the court, widely known as the ICC, are that the Chinese government enforced birth control and sterilization programs among the Uighur population, carried out mass surveillance and massacres inside Xinjiang, and coerced some individuals into becoming informants on Uighurs living overseas.
Beijing has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of the Uighur minority and insists its actions in Xinjiang have been taken to combat terrorism. The dearth of independent reporting in Xinjiang makes it difficult to assess the scale of terrorist and militant attacks there, but there is no question the region has witnessed multiple deadly assaults on civilian, military and government targets over the past decade.
The United States and China are among several countries that do not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction, and on July 11, Washington imposed sanctions on some court officials for what it called “politically motivated” investigations of the U.S. and Israel. But the court still has 123 other member states that do acknowledge its status, and so investigations of and trials against those suspected of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity carry significant international weight.
It is this reputational power that Omer hopes the complaint against China can harness, and while he said he was intensely nervous about recounting his experiences during interviews via Skype video and the WhatsApp messaging service, he thought it was important that the world learn what he said Chinese government officials are doing in the country’s northwest.
“They should be punished for the crime they have done to us,” he said. “It is my responsibility to give my testimony.”
NBC News could not independently verify some aspects of Omer’s story, but the experiences he recounted align with multiple accounts provided by other Uighurs in exile.
Chinese officials did not comment on the specific cases NBC News presented them, but the Chinese Embassy in London called allegations that China had persecuted and imprisoned Uighur religious figures “lies,” repeating Beijing’s previous responses to questions about its treatment of the group.
“The issue concerning Xinjiang is by no means about human rights, religion or ethnicity, but about combating violent terrorism and separatism,” Ying Yang, the embassy’s press officer, wrote in an email.
“The so-called genocide and forced sterilization is nothing but a lie,” he added, responding to multiple questions about the treatment in Xinjiang of Uighur individuals like Omer. The email also linked to a series of Chinese state television films about terrorism in Xinjiang.
According to an account in a book written by former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping at a G-20 summit in June 2019 that China’s construction of camps for some Uighurs was the “right thing to do.”
Ahead of the book’s publication, Trump tweeted that Bolton’s account was “made up of lies & fake stories." And in a subsequent interview with Axios, asked if the account of his meeting with Xi was true, Trump responded, “no, not at all,” and denied that he had given his approval to the Chinese leader’s approach in Xinjiang.
More recently, the Trump administration seems to have become an unlikely ally to the largely Muslim ethnic minority, siding with them through the recently introduced visa restrictions on Chinese officials, amid the broader escalating economic and political battles fought between the U.S. and China, the world's two largest economies.
That contest has led to an outright U.S. ban on the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, financial and travel sanctions placed on both countries’ government officials, hefty tit-for-tat tariffs on imports, and more recently the closure of consulates in the cities of Houston and Chengdu, China.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, responded last month to questions about the latest visa sanctions relating to the alleged mistreatment of Uighurs by saying, ”Xinjiang affairs are purely China's internal affairs,” adding that the U.S. has “no right and no cause to interfere.”
Rising ethnic tensions
Of the more than two dozen individuals who have offered to give witness accounts for the new claim lodged at the ICC, two were prepared to speak to NBC News about their own experiences inside the region’s detention camps: Istanbul-based Omer and Omir Bekali, 44. One other individual initially agreed to discuss her experiences and then decided against it, and the remaining witnesses included in the complaint did not respond to requests for comment through their lawyers, or said they were not prepared to talk to the media.
The Xinjiang region, where a majority of the Uighurs live, is considered autonomous like Tibet and is strategically important to China as Beijing seeks to strengthen trade ties across the Eurasian continent.
Ethnic tensions in recent decades have increased as residents from other parts of China — predominantly members of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Han — have migrated to the region with Beijing’s encouragement, reducing the Uighur portion of Xinjiang’s total population.
And on several occasions in the past two decades, those tensions have ignited violence — riots in 2009, for instance, left 197 people dead and 1,700 others wounded, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, said at a July press conference. A transcript of his remarks was sent as a weblink to NBC News in response to several questions that focused on both individuals’ allegations of mistreatment, as well as the general situation in Xinjiang.
Liu’s remarks described “thousands of violent attacks in Xinjiang, resulting in devastating casualties of innocent people and huge loss of property,” many of them carried out by Uighur individuals on those with an ethnic Han background.
This violence helped prompt regional and national authorities to introduce draconian anti-terror measures, including the use of a scorecard system driven by artificial intelligence and other metrics that rated individuals according to their perceived risk of religious radicalization.
Liu’s comments included the assertion that, “there has not been a single terrorist attack for more than three years in a row in Xinjiang.”
But multiple human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published reports detailing how the new laws have also precipitated the imprisonment or detention of a vast number of Uighurs — as many as one million. Chinese authorities strongly dispute that figure.
Among those who told NBC News they were detained was Omer, who was born in Guma County, a predominantly Uighur part of Xinjiang region. He said his ordeal began in 2017 when he was arrested at the airport in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital and largest city, after returning from Egypt where he had been working for six months as a chef.
He said authorities were suspicious of his travels and detained him for almost a year, during which time he was interrogated — sometimes violently, he said — about his alleged involvement in radical terrorist activities abroad. Like several other governments, China has long expressed concern about small numbers of citizens returning from battlefields in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, where they say they have fought alongside militant Islamist extremists.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Early on, Omer said, he was held at the Arzen prison in Xinjiang’s Hotan City, inside a cell with padded walls that he estimated to be slightly larger than 60 square feet. Soon after his arrival, with a blindfold and a plastic bag over his head, he was forced to another room — and before returning to his cell, he said was told he would need to answer several questions: Had he received any Islamic religious instruction while in Egypt? Did he know how to assemble explosive devices? And what had he been tasked with upon his return to China?
During a subsequent session, Omer said his interrogators — two of them Uighur like himself — appeared unhappy with his answers, and started to beat him using a computer cable as a whip.
“They whipped me on my back 30 or 40 times,” he recalled. “It was extremely painful.”
He said the experience was so excruciating that he told his captors what he thought they wanted him to say, pretending that he had, in fact, attended two or three religious ceremonies while in Egypt. But when he insisted he knew nothing about making bombs, he said the interrogators began to strike his buttocks and the soles of his feet with metal tubes for several hours, until he said he would be prepared to confess to “any kind of crime.”
Omer said he concocted a story and signed an 18-page legal document in which he falsely confessed to attending half a dozen religious services in Egypt, among other potentially criminal acts. He said his signature had been coerced, and the document signed under duress.
During his video interviews with NBC News, he spoke in his native Uighur language, in response to questions in English, while an independent Uighur interpreter translated his answers. A full recording of each interview was then translated and transcribed verbatim for this story.
After signing the false confession, Omer said there followed a blindfolded 30-minute drive to a third location, which he was told was run by the Ministry of State Security, China’s domestic intelligence service. He said it was equipped with creature comforts that had not existed during the previous six months of incarceration: plenty of food, his own bed and access to a common shower area.
This facility’s description matches that of detention centers that have drawn criticism from international human rights groups and foreign governments, including the United States. Amnesty International says detainees in some of these facilities have no access to lawyers and can sometimes “languish in detention for months,” while enduring mistreatment that includes “food deprivation, solitary confinement, beatings and use of restraints and stress positions.”
China has described them as “re-education camps,” but Omer said he referred to his new home as the “brainwashing” center. “They gradually tried to make me hate those Uighurs overseas,” he said of his four months at the facility where he was held.
His would-be handlers told him to travel to Germany, where his father lived, and unearth information about a Uighur exile group and other individuals on behalf of the Chinese government, Omer said, adding in a later message that at the time he felt he had no choice but to agree if he wanted to get out of there.
Omer said he was released Jan. 20, 2018, and days later he was allowed to join the more than one million Uighurs that a leading exile group, the World Uyghur Congress, estimates now live overseas. Chinese government figures put the current Uighur population inside Xinjiang at around 11.7 million.
Omer said members of the domestic intelligence service — “the company” as officials termed it in Uighur language voice messages provided to NBC News by Omer and independently translated — bought him a ticket from Urumqi to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where he spent two days waiting for his German visa application to be granted.
But the visa was denied, and with financial support from his father, Omer flew instead to Turkey. It was there that he said he began to back off from promises he had made previously to spy on behalf of his erstwhile captors, as detailed in several of the voice message exchanges he provided.
Omer said his captors at the third facility had told him that they would kill him if he acted against their interests, or revealed their communications with him. In one of the voice messages Omer provided, a man says Omer had not done “what the company told you to do,” and insists in another, “we are two steps ahead of you.”
The voice warns Omer in a third not to make him angry, adding, “I do not want to be harsh on you.”
The attorneys behind the recent ICC complaint said they considered the messages to be real, and have included details from them in their filing, but NBC News was unable to verify the identity of the men speaking in the messages.
The team of human rights attorneys based in London and The Hague, where the ICC is seated, are pushing for the prosecutor to launch an investigation into the Chinese president and more than 30 other named senior members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Lawyers have submitted the 80-page complaint on behalf of two Washington-based Uighur organizations, the self-described “East Turkistan Government in Exile,” and the “East Turkistan National Awakening Movement.”
East Turkistan — sometimes written Turkestan — is the historical name for an area roughly equivalent to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region that forms part of modern China. But in recent decades, the label has also been a rallying cry for Uighurs and other Turkic ethnic minorities, like the Kazakhs, who advocate for separatism, independence or a greater degree of autonomy.
Twice in the 20th century, it was also the name for a short-lived independent Uighur-ruled state that emerged during the tumultuous decades of modern China’s early border confrontations with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the 1940s.
Beijing has long contended that organizations like those that lodged the recent claim undermine the country’s national security by trying to split Xinjiang from China.
On Nov. 13, 2019, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said authorities have given a “thorough and clear account of relevant issues,” including the existence of detention camps publicized by these opposition organizations.
The Chinese government says its programs in Xinjiang are carried out in the name of security and anti-terrorism, and in August last year it published a policy document stating that the region was a key battlefield in the fight against terrorism and extremism.
The paper outlined that the region had established “vocational education” and “training centers” in accordance with the law to prevent the breeding and spread of terrorism and religious extremism. The Chinese ambassador to the U.K. also said that up to 1,000 international media representatives, human rights observers, United Nations officials and faith groups have been taken on tours of the centers. He did not provide evidence for this assertion.
While outside visitors, including journalists from media groups such as NBC News, have occasionally been permitted to enter Xinjiang under highly monitored conditions, there is a growing body of evidence — testimonies from nongovernmental organizations, congressional findings and multiple, credible news reports — that China has engaged in a massive program of detention, surveillance and social re-engineering efforts involving the Uighurs and other minorities.
Legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in June stated that Chinese authorities had detained no less than 800,000 Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, including the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, in “re-education camps.”
International NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have for years published multiple reports indicating that Beijing has carried out mass imprisonment and torture inside several of the region’s facilities.
And while countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. have recently hardened their stance against Beijing more broadly, and moved to sanction China specifically for its treatment of the Uighur population, the process of legally holding the officials allegedly responsible to account had appeared insurmountable, given neither China nor the U.S. acknowledges the authority of the ICC.
But the attorneys behind this recent effort are relying on a legal precedent created by the court last year, after a similar complaint involving members of the Rohingya Muslim minority who had fled oppression in their native country, Myanmar. Rohingya individuals had been forcibly returned from Bangladesh, which recognizes the court’s jurisdiction, to the Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which does not.
The lawyers argue that some of the alleged crimes against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang similarly began in countries that are in fact signatories to the ICC’s governing treaties. Their complaint states that individuals were captured and transported to China from countries that recognize the court’s jurisdiction, including Cambodia and Tajikistan; and that this forced deportation should grant the court the right to investigate other alleged crimes, including a reported program to sterilize Uighur individuals as a method of controlling the group’s population.
Rodney Dixon, a London-based attorney who is overseeing the complaint, said that international pressure on China from other countries — including the U.S. — could help hasten an investigation. And although the court would be unable to actually prosecute Chinese officials in the current circumstances, Dixon said a successful case could prevent the accused from traveling to other countries that recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction — and even those that do not, if they decided to honor an arrest request from the court. This, he said, would limit the movements and international reach of those officials.
“The deterrent effect of having charges against you and knowing that there are consequences for your actions is a very important one under international law,” he said outside his London offices.
‘Stop these genocides’
During a video interview, Omir Bekali said he was arrested in March 2017 in a village called Dighar, in a part of Xinjiang called Pichan. It was the end of a brief business trip to a nearby city, and he had gone to visit his parents at his childhood home.
Bekali was born in Dighar — an agricultural and predominantly Uighur settlement — in the mid 1970s, at a time when ethnic Han people were being encouraged to move into the region from other parts of China to help develop the economy, but also, many Uighurs argue, to transform them into a minority in their traditional territory.
Bekali, whose testimony as a named witness is included in the complaint filed to the ICC, told NBC News he had grown fed up with “ethnic discrimination” he encountered in his work as a driver at an oilfield. He said he wanted to escape the kind of “religious suppression” that had entailed a weekly check-in with local police, who equated his increasingly frequent mosque attendance with dangerous extremism.
So, in 2006, he moved to the neighbouring nation of Kazakhstan, and at the time of his 2017 arrest he was a resident in the former Soviet state with his wife and young children, and, he said, working at a tourism agency having become a Kazakh citizen.
Despite having held non-Chinese nationality for more than a year by the time of his arrest and having legally renounced his Chinese citizenship, Bekali said he was charged by Chinese police officers in Xinjiang with “propagating, organizing and protecting terrorism activities and terrorists.”
He was taken to an underground section of what his five police captors told him was the Jerenbulaq police station, he said, and tortured during interrogations about his alleged activities overseas.
Over several days, he said, he was subjected to a torrent of torture tools, including the so-called tiger chair — specially designed to restrain detainees for hours and prevent them from sleeping — and beaten using various other techniques, including one where he was hung facedown from the ceiling by chains attached to his wrists and ankles, and beaten with plastic rods.
“Regardless of whether or not you are innocent, you have to go through this interrogation, this torture,” Bekali said in a video interview from the Netherlands where he lives and is seeking asylum.
After that initial questioning and mistreatment, hooded and in handcuffs, he said he was taken to what he called a “camp” or “detention facility” in Xinjiang’s Karamay City, where he spent eight months and said he faced further physical and psychological abuse. He said he was regularly chained in his cell to the floor with heavy cuffs placed on both his arms and legs, leaving him weak and unable to move.
Four months later he was released, after the Kazakh ambassador to China made enquiries about his detention. He traveled to Turkey first, before testifying in Geneva at a hearing about the camps in Xinjiang. Following his testimony, he sought political asylum in the Netherlands.
In his witness testimony that was lodged with the ICC, Bekali stated that “the death of one person in the United States shakes up the entire world, however in East Turkistan, thousands of innocent Uighur and Kazakh youths are being chained up with black bags over their heads.”
As he continues to seek asylum, Bekali said he wanted to speak out to publicize the existence of these publicly inaccessible camps inside China, and to prevent the kinds of crimes against humanity that are alleged in the complaint filed to the ICC.
“I would expect that this legal case will stop these genocides,” he said. “Otherwise, the Uighurs and Kazakhs will be eliminated altogether.”