BEIJING (AP) — Officials from China's northwestern Xinjiang region said Tuesday that most of the people who were in the area's controversial re-education centers have since left the facilities and signed "work contracts" with local companies.
The U.S., human rights groups and independent analysts estimate around 1 million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang's heavily guarded internment camps, which the Chinese government calls vocational training centers. The region is home to Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups.
Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang's Uighur governor, declined to give a figure for those he called "students" inside the centers during a news briefing. Zakir defended the facilities as an effective and "pioneering" approach to counterterrorism.
"Most of the graduates from the vocational training centers have been reintegrated into society," Zakir said. "More than 90% of the graduates have found satisfactory jobs with good incomes."
Xinjiang Vice Chairman Alken Tuniaz said accounts of mistreatment in the camps were concocted by a few countries and media outlets.
Former detainees and their family members have said in interviews with The Associated Press that the re-education centers resembled prisons where they were forced to renounce their faith and swear loyalty to China's ruling Communist Party. They said they were subject to repeated political indoctrination and often did not understand why they were being held in the facilities.
Travelling overseas, speaking to relatives abroad and growing an excessively long beard are all acts that might land someone in detention, according to Uighurs and Kazakhs who have fled the region.
They have also told The AP that some detainees were forced into factory jobs. They were taken to a government office and handed labor contracts for six months to five years in a distant factory, which they were required to sign, according to one detainee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Tuniaz said the centers protected people's liberties by allowing them to "request time off" and "regularly go home." While the people inside the centers are not permitted to practice their religion during their "period of study," they can resume activities related to their faith when they are at home. The officials Tuesday did not address whether the program is voluntary or how often people are allowed to go home.
After international condemnation of and extensive reporting on the centers, China began organizing highly choreographed trips to Xinjiang for journalists and foreign officials. Earlier this month, United Nations envoys from 37 countries including North Korea, Syria and several Muslim-majority states, signed a letter supporting the camps and commending China's human rights record.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, called Zakir a "political microphone" used by Beijing to spread its "deception."
"Shohrat Zakir's remarks completely distort the reality of the systematic persecution that Uighurs are suffering in China," Raxit said.
The U.S. State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, Nathan Sales, said in a July interview with the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia that the detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang had "nothing to do with terrorism" and was instead part of the Communist Party's "war on religion."
"It is trying to stamp out the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious identities of the people that it's been targeting," Sales told RFA.