Former Xinjiang detainee arrives in US to testify over repeated torture he says he was subjected to

Show caption Ovalbek Turdakun, left, his wife Zhyldyz Uraalieva and their son Daniyel Ovalbek on their way to the US. Turdakun alleges he was tortured repeatedly in steel ‘tiger chairs’ in Xinjiang. Xinjiang Former Xinjiang detainee arrives in US to testify over repeated torture he says he was subjected to Ovalbek Turdakun was given special authorization to enter the US after he had been imprisoned in detention camp in China Johana Bhuiyan Wed 13 Apr 2022 04.17 BST Share on Facebook

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Ovalbek Turdakun still doesn’t know what was in the shot the doctors in the Xinjiang detention centre gave him in 2018. He and his 23 cell mates were told it was a vaccine to prevent colds but Turdakun said that after the injection he and his cellmates felt pain in their ears, hands and feet; yellow fluid came out of their ears; some had trouble walking. When he was released after 10 months’ detention, Turdakun still struggled to walk.

Turdakun is among the nearly 2 million people who are estimated to have been imprisoned in China’s mass detention camps in the Xinjiang region. On Tuesday, Turdakun, his wife, Zhyldyz Uraalieva, and son Daniyel Ovalbek arrived in the US on a special immigration authorization called significant public benefit parole which grants entry to people who would provide “significant public benefit” such as testifying in a criminal or legal proceeding.

In an interview with the Guardian, Turdakun expressed relief at arriving in the US after months of holding out for approval of their applications. “We were waiting over a hundred days,” Turdakun said through a translator. “So it’s a great feeling to be in America.”

Like many other survivors who have spoken publicly about their experience, Turdakun alleges he was detained without a fair trial and tortured repeatedly in “tiger chairs” – steel chairs with restraints to keep people in uncomfortable positions.

Unlike many of those who’ve been detained – the majority of whom are Uyghur and Muslim – Turdakun is ethnically Kyrgyz and Christian, and his case has prompted further concern that China is targeting anyone who is of a different ethnicity and religion.

China has repeatedly disputed all allegations of abuse of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, but the US has accused Beijing of carrying out genocide in Xinjiang.

When Turdakun was detained in February 2018, officials said it was because he overstayed his visa during a visit to Kyrgyzstan. During his interrogations, he was repeatedly asked about his religion as well as his marriage to his wife, who was born in Kyrgyzstan.

After being released in December 2018, Turdakun was placed on house arrest, forced to work without pay and was put under constant surveillance for a year. Fearing he would be detained again, the family fled to Kyrgyzstan in 2019. There, he was repeatedly contacted by Chinese authorities asking him to return to China, his bank account was frozen, and – after two years – Kyrgyzstan officials refused to renew his visa after two years, putting him and his family at risk of deportation back to China.

Now, international human rights lawyers who are arguing that China has committed crimes against humanity in a case they’ve submitted to the international criminal court (ICC) say Turdakun could provide supporting evidence that Uyghurs and other Chinese ethnic minorities are being forcibly deported to China from countries like Tajikistan.

Constant surveillance

China is not a member of the ICC, and therefore cannot be tried by the court, but Tajikistan – a country to which Chinese ethnic minorities sometimes flee – is and international human rights lawyers including UK-based Rodney Dixon are trying to use that to bring China’s crimes against humanity to trial. Dixon is compiling evidence of poor treatment of Xinjiang residents in Tajikistan with the hope that this would convince the ICC that it has jurisdiction over China’s human rights violations and open an investigation. Lawyers believe Turdakun’s case would illustrate a pattern of mistreatment in other countries as well.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, Dixon wrote in support of Turdakun’s application saying that his account of his detention would be important evidence in any future investigation. “You will no doubt be aware of the dangers that he and his family currently face,” the letter reads. “It is crucial to keep them safe and secure … It is vital that his evidence is available for the ICC and for the international community.”

Every morning for 10 months, Turdakun and his 23 cell mates would wake up in their crowded, windowless but constantly lit cell and have to sing songs praising the Chinese Communist party in order to get their breakfast. Though they were crowded into the same cell together, Turdakun and his cell mates were not allowed to speak with each other and spent their days watching videos about how China was growing and developing under the constant surveillance of a network of cameras, Turdakun said. If they spoke or did anything they weren’t supposed to do, a loud voice over the speakers would tell them to stop and often they would endure physical punishment, he said. If one person in the cell did something wrong, they were all punished.

For the lightest punishment, Turdakun would have to stand on his tip toes while squatting down and putting his hands on his head. If he tipped over, he would be beaten, he said. While it was hard in the beginning, they had to do it so often that Turdakun said he and his cell mates all eventually became good at it.

The worse punishment involved tiger chairs – of which there were two types, Turdakun said.

The first was in a brightly lit room, with a camera and spotlight. It was in those chairs that he was restrained and interrogated. He was asked about his religion and his marriage to a “Kyrgyz foreigner”, according to a briefing submitted to the state department by Conor Healy, the government director of surveillance research organisation IPVM.

There were no questions when you were in the second type of tiger chair. This kind was made entirely of steel, with steel restraints for his waist, arms and legs. It sat in a padded room with a thick door for sound proofing. Turdakun was subjected to this chair three times – each time for at least a day.

Every day for the 10 months Turdakun was detained, his wife visited local officials pleading for her husband’s release. Their son was sick, had pain in his knees and was diagnosed with arthritis, Uraalieva said. As a foreigner, she could not work in China and support the family.

Finally, in December 2018, Turdakun was released to house arrest. For a year, he wasn’t able to leave his home except for a few permitted activities such as picking up his son from school. Facial recognition cameras followed him everywhere, he said. In interview footage that Healy shared with the Guardian, Turdakun said Hikvision – one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cameras – was the brand on the camera he saw everywhere.

If the camera detected any activity that was not permitted, police would visit and interrogate him. Afraid that he would be detained again, Turdakun and his family eventually fled to Kyrgyzstan on foot and received a special resident permit. But after two years, Kyrgyz officials refused to renew his visa.

After that, Turdakun said he had to try to fly under the radar. “You had to be careful because [my] family was back together and we didn’t want it separated again.”

With the help of a group of Americans and one Canadian, the family fled to a third countrywhere they waited more than three monthsfor authorization to travel to the US.

‘Under great threat’

While the ICC case focuses on the experiences of Chinese ethnic minorities in Tajikistan and other countries as a stand-in for China’s treatment of these groups, Turdakun’s story shows that it is not just Uyghur Muslims who are targeted. Those detained with Turdakun were largely Kyrgyz, he recalled. He wasn’t sure what religion they practised because they weren’t allowed to speak.

The Kyrgyz were under great threat in China, said Ethan Gutmann, an author and researcher on China studies who first encountered Turdakun and his family as part of his own research. “They’re not a huge ethnic minority in China, but they’re under great threat,” he said. “They’re also Christian. That shows that this is not just an attack on Islam – it’s an attack on anybody with deeply held religious beliefs.”

For now, Turdakun hopes the ICC case will “help bring back together more and more families that have been separated”.

For his family, which is believed to be the only intact family unit who have been brought to the US after fleeing detention camps in China, he says: “My greatest hope is to quickly become an American citizen.”