Officials from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region said on Tuesday that most of the people detained in the area’s contentious re-education centres have been moved out of the facilities and have signed "work contracts" with local companies.
However, those assertions were challenged by accounts from Uighurs and Kazakhs who say their relatives remain missing.
The United States, human rights groups and independent analysts estimate that about 1 million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang’s heavily guarded internment camps, which the Chinese government calls vocational training centres.
The Xinjiang region is home to an estimated 12 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities who have suffered persecution at the hands of the Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority.
In recent years, Xinjiang has been blanketed with high-tech surveillance cameras and police checkpoints that single out Uighurs for identification checks.
Former detainees and their family members have said in interviews that the re-education centres 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 abroad, speaking to relatives in other countries and growing a long beard are all acts that might land someone in detention, according to Uighurs and Kazakhs who have fled the region.
Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s Uighur governor, declined at a news briefing to give a figure for those he described as "students" inside the centres. He 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," Mr Zakir said. "More than 90% of the graduates have found satisfactory jobs with good incomes."
Uighurs and Kazakhs outside China, however, continue to appeal to foreign governments to help them locate their relatives still inside Xinjiang. Many say they have not been able to contact their loved ones for years, and they fear the worst.
Some told the AP that some detainees were released from the camps only to be 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, fearing reprisal.
Xinjiang Vice Chairman Alken Tuniaz said accounts of mistreatment in the camps were concocted by a few countries and media outlets.
The centres protected people’s liberties by allowing them to "request time off" and "regularly go home," Tuniaz said. 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 at Tuesday’s briefing 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 centres, China began organising 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. The letter was an apparent response to a letter signed by 22 countries - including Germany, Japan and the UK - condemning the camps.
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 US State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, Nathan Sales, said in an interview in July with the US 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.