A hacker, a researcher and thousands of photos: Inside China's secret Uyghur detention system

·20 min read

Rahile Omer looks into the camera, her angular face expressionless. Her eyes hold the only hint of emotion.

She has been flagged by China’s sweeping surveillance system in Xinjiang province. It monitors Uyghurs, the Muslim ethnic group, and other minority groups for “micro-clues” that officials deem suspicious. Rahile has been deemed a “Type 12 person,” someone connected to an existing police case.

She is 14 years old.

In Rahile's case, the flag was triggered by a family connection, according to police records; her mother was serving six years in prison for allegedly disturbing “the social order” after authorities accused her of following a puritanical form of Islam and engaging in extremist religious practices. The girl's father, also labeled a “Type 12 person,” had already been sent to a "reeducation" camp after being detained in 2017.

Now, Rahile’s mug shot is captured by an official’s digital camera. Her name and supposed infractions are logged in a spreadsheet along with those of thousands of other people. And Rahile, too, will be sent to a camp that outside experts say is essentially a prison.

The photo and details of Rahile Omer's case are among thousands of secret files that were obtained from computer systems of two local police agencies in China, according to a U.S.-based China researcher, Adrian Zenz.

Zenz, a well-known expert on China's treatment of the Uyghurs, says a hacker extracted the files and gave them to him. Zenz then launched an extensive effort to authenticate the records and provided them to an international media consortium, including USA TODAY. Journalists independently reviewed the massive trove of records and verified portions of the contents, which experts say offer an unprecedented look inside China's detention and internment of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

Zenz published a peer-reviewed research paper on his findings Tuesday, along with a website that discloses thousands of photos and other evidence.

The files include more than 5,000 photos of what appear to be Uyghur people taken at police facilities – essentially mug shots. Zenz concluded thousands of those people were held in detention at the time the photos were taken in 2018. Others may have been photographed as part of the China's surveillance campaign, including an effort to collect biometric data from residents in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government views the Uyghurs as a threat in part because some have sought greater autonomy or even a separate state. Officials have portrayed detention centers as "vocational education and training centers" – benevolent, state-run schools designed to help stamp out extremism. Zenz and others say they are internment facilities, designed to stamp out Uyghur identity and culture.

The photos, databases and other information in the files paint a picture of China's detention and internment of the Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities – one that sharply contradicts the Communist Party's official line.

Photos show guards standing over detainees, holding heavy wooden batons. Riot teams enter a barred cell, automatic rifles raised and ready. Other detainees are marched, some in handcuffs and shackles.

Visual story: Unprecedented evidence of China's secret Uyghur detention system

It is not clear from the photos whether these are security drills or real-life crackdowns inside the facility. Zenz says they are probably drills, used at least in part to intimidate the detainees.

Perhaps as stunning as the mug shots of thousands of detainees are the training manuals and speeches.

The files released to the media organizations include transcribed speeches attributed to two high-level Chinese Communist Party officials, one of whom urges local officials to treat members of targeted ethnic groups as hardened criminals: to be arrested on sight, to be shackled if necessary, and, for any detainees who might try to escape, to be shot.

USA TODAY was not able to independently verify the authenticity of all the data and photographs in the files. But the media consortium, which includes 13 other outlets, found evidence to support Zenz's conclusions. Some photos include geolocation data that places them near the detention center Zenz identified. One of the party officials is known to have visited Xinjiang on the date cited in his speech. And coalition journalists interviewed Uyghurs, no longer living in China, who identified relatives who appear in the files.

Chinese officials did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the new revelations, which were sent by the media coalition to the foreign ministry’s office in Beijing as well as to China’s embassies in the U.S, France, the United Kingdom and other countries.

But a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in the U.S., Liu Pengyu, said Xinjiang-related issues are “in essence about countering violent terrorism, radicalization and separatism, not about human rights or religion.”

Liu said “a large amount of false information has been spread” about China’s policies in Xinjiang, and he included a link to a “fact check” published by an official state press agency. Among other things, that site attacks Zenz’s credibility and says his reports are “full of fabrications and data manipulation.”

Liu said Xinjiang now enjoys “social stability and harmony,” and “the local people are living a safe, happy and fulfilling life."

Zenz says the internal police documents provide the most extensive visual evidence yet of Beijing's policy and its impact on thousands of Uyghurs – a haunting photographic record of China's mass internment campaign.

"This is the first time ever that we have images of people as they were photographed inside the police station upon detention, either for registration or transfer or to be sent to a camp," Zenz told USA TODAY.

The records list the charges against the detainees, though Zenz says the allegations reveal the arbitrary nature of China's system. Violations for some include studying scriptures, thinking extreme thoughts and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble." Others, like Rahile, are guilty by association, based only on family or social ties.

And while the release of a vast inmate database is unprecedented, there is an unsettling reality to what it does not include.

Timestamps indicate the photos were taken between Jan. 6 and July 25, 2018. Sometime during those months, officials stood in a room somewhere in China with 14-year-old Rahile. They took her photograph. They logged her alleged infractions.

But since then, what has happened to her – and thousands of others like her – is impossible to know.

An anonymous hacker and a well-known researcher

The files came from two local Chinese police computer networks in Xinjiang, Zenz writes in an academic paper published on Tuesday.

Zenz says he obtained the files from a hacker who requested anonymity because of personal safety concerns. This person hacked into computer systems operated by the public security offices of Konasheher and Tekes counties and then contacted Zenz, the researcher writes in his paper.

Zenz says he knows how the hacker was able to decrypt some of material, but he will not publicly disclose that information.

None of the media outlets had any involvement in the hack.

Chinese officials have specifically sought to discredit Zenz, a senior fellow for China studies at a group called the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. The foundation was created by Congress, but it is funded through private donations.

During a press conference last year, Xu Guixiang, a Xinjiang regional party spokesman, called Zenz "a goon fed by anti-China forces" and said his research was "full of lies and fake information."

Zenz has dismissed such remarks as desperate personal attacks designed to distract from his findings, which he notes are based on the Chinese government's own documents.

Much of the material in Zenz's report is based on cross-referencing documents within the document cache. For example, he compared data about the mug shot image files with another database file that appeared to log criminal charges, and was able to match people in the database to their pictures.

In many cases, the material cannot be independently researched. But members of the coalition found evidence to support his conclusions.

Zenz concluded: The files show highly sensitive settings such as police stations, police training events and the inside of a detention facility in Tekes County, a portion of Xinjiang near the Kazakhstan border. He based this conclusion on analyzing the images' metadata, where it was included, assessing the internal consistency of the data and other factors.

Other evidence: About 50 of the photos include geolocation data, underlying electronic coding that some cameras create, according to an analysis by a German outlet that is part of the media group. That data shows the pictures were taken in Tekes County. The documents also include phone numbers that were within the records of the police agencies' computer systems. Coalition reporters called more than 150 of those telephone numbers. Several Chinese police officers and government officials listed on the data picked up the calls and confirmed their names, roles and respective offices.

Zenz concluded: The documents contain internal remarks attributed to Chen Quanguo, who at the time was charged with implementing the internment campaign. Chen's speeches lay out the policy toward the Uyghur detainees in stark terms, according to Zenz's report. In a 2017 address, Chen talks about the need to "shoot all terrorists dead." He says that when police make arrests, especially of those returning from other countries, they should “arrest them as soon as they see them” and “deal with them as with serious criminal offenders," putting them in handcuffs, blindfolds and “ankle shackles if needed."

Other evidence: The speeches are nearly impossible to independently verify, but the files place them in the same general timeframe as the time period of all the images contained in the files. There is a local bulletin that mentions Chen's speech, and a government summary of the visit by the second party official, Zhao Kezhi, to Xinjiang at the same time shown in the transcript of his speech.

Zenz concluded: The mug shots in the files were taken by police or other officials in Xinjiang. Of the 5,074 images of individual people in the files, at least 2,884 were in some form of detention at the time the photos were taken in 2018. He based this on cross-referencing data from three spreadsheets included in the cache that showed the detainees' names, addresses and where and when images were taken. (Zenz and others believe that a "substantial" number of the individuals in the photographs are still being held in some form of arbitrary detention.)

Other evidence: Hany Farid, a digital forensic expert with the University of California, Berkeley, examined a subset of the photos and found no evidence they were fake or otherwise digitally manipulated. As for identifying the individual people, BBC reporters spoke to three Uyghurs who fled China to live abroad, all of whom have relatives in Xinjiang who are missing. When reporters showed them excerpts of the files, each was able to identify family members whose names or photographs, along with their Chinese identification numbers, appear in the files, for a total of six verified entries.

That final element of verification may have been the most visceral.

Because of China's detention policies, many Uyghur people are difficult to contact and fear speaking out publicly. Even those who have successfully fled China know that they and their relatives can be identified. But some are willing to speak.

One was Abdurahman Hasan, who now lives in Amsterdam and has had no contact with his wife in more than five years.

When he looked at the secret files, he saw her face.

'She looks destroyed'

Hasan left Xinjiang in 2017 for business reasons and realized he could not return because of the escalating threats to the Uyghur community. Left behind was his wife.

Her name is Tunsagul Nurmemet.

After Hasan provided her Chinese identification number, reporters were able to show him what appeared within the files: Nurmemet's detention date. Her 16-year sentence. And her photograph.

Hasan had feared his wife was dead.

"Thank God, thank you, thank you," Hasan said when he realized she could still be alive.

"I’m glad that she’s alive, but I know how cruelly the Chinese would have treated her," he told the BBC. He spoke in Uyghur. The BBC shared translated transcripts with the media consortium.

Two others provided similar verification. Mahmud Tohti said two of his sons, along with his daughter-in-law and his granddaughter, are all in the database. One of his children, Ghappar Tohti, was sentenced to seven years for the crime of "gathering a crowd to disturb the social order." His eldest son, Polat Tohti, was sentenced to 15 years after allegedly "preparing to commit terrorist activities."

"They take away people without any explanation," Mahmud Tohti told the BBC. "I witnessed that they came to people's homes, put a black hood over their heads and drove them away. There's no time to ask where you are taking my child. Even if you do, they would say that you shouldn't ask. And no one tells you where your child is."

Mahmud Tohti also fled Xinjiang. He now lives in Turkey.

A third Uyghur individual living in Turkey identified her nephew's photograph and identification number in the files. She asked to remain anonymous.

Hasan said that after he left Xinjiang, his brother contacted him and told him both his wife and their mother had been taken to "study."

"Since 2018, I’ve been hearing repeatedly that my wife was tortured to death" at the camp where the two women had been taken, he said.

Nurmemet was a mother and housewife before being taken to a "reeducation" camp in Shufu County, according to the police files and a public account in the Xinjiang Victims Database, an online repository dedicated to documenting the disappearance and incarceration of Uyghur individuals. (The database is run by Gene Bunin, who holds U.S. and Russian citizenship and used to live in Xinjiang.)

According to the police files, Nurmemet was first flagged by the Xinjiang surveillance system on June 25, 2017. At first, she was not detained because she was nursing her baby.

But that decision was reversed two months later, when police brought her in on charges of “gathering a crowd to disrupt the social order” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Zenz says the files show she was sentenced Dec. 24, 2017, and photographed, possibly upon prison intake, Jan. 16, 2018.

Those "crimes" are commonly used by Chinese authorities to detain Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Hasan said the charges are implausible.

"Her life was based around her family, and she doesn’t interact with others much either," he said. "She only visits relatives. ... She doesn’t have a big social network. How can she gather a crowd?"

Looking at her photograph now, Hasan said, "You can see how her spirit is broken. It must have been taken around the time of her sentencing. She looks destroyed."

And while the database reveals something about the fate of his wife, Hasan said he does not know the fate of their two children. Their son would be turning 8 this summer. Their daughter, the newborn his wife was nursing when she was first detained, would be 6.

"I was so happy when my children were born, but I realized I had made a mistake," Hasan said. "They wouldn't have suffered so much if they weren't born."

'Very powerful to see real humans'

In addition to the reporting collaborative's verification work, Zenz's analysis of the police files has been reviewed by two other specialists on the issue. USA TODAY interviewed both of those experts, who said his verification method is sound and the material is consistent with other Chinese government documents that have been revealed about the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

"The detail of the files is really quite, quite extraordinary," said Michael Clarke, a senior fellow with the Australian Defence College and an adjunct professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute. He was one of two peer reviewers who read Zenz's academic paper before its publication.

Clarke said the new material offers the first "ground-level view" of how the Chinese Communist Party has implemented the internment campaign at a local level.

David Tobin, a lecturer in East Asian studies at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., said that until now, visual evidence of China's internment campaign has been limited mostly to satellite imagery or photos of suspected camps from the outside.

Any images from inside the tightly guarded facilities in Xinjiang, he said, have been carefully curated for release by the Chinese Communist Party.

"At first, (the government) denied the existence of camps, then it produced a lot of information for the public – particularly Western audiences – to show the nicer side of these institutions, the classrooms and so forth," Tobin said. "(But) we have very little visual evidence of the things that the party would not like the world to see."

"...It's very powerful to see real humans," he said of the photographs. This is "very new."

Clarke said there is a risk involved in publishing the detainees’ photos and other personal information because China could pressure their relatives outside the country or cause other problems for their families.

But others say the media attention could actually prompt the Chinese government to release or otherwise improve their situations – as a way to push back against the publication of this investigation.

“I would expect that anyone who appears in international media may be more likely to be looked after and used in propaganda videos, rather than directly harmed,” Tobin said.

Zenz has also made that argument, and his organization published all the detainees’ photos along with their names and information from their case files.

Ex-Communist Party official: 'Prepare for a long-term struggle'

The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority who live in what China refers to as the Xinjiang region but which some Uyghurs call East Turkestan. There are an estimated 12 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which shares a border with Pakistan, Kazakhstan and several other countries.

The Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and have a different cultural identity than the Han Chinese population, which speaks Mandarin and is generally not religious.

Experts say Chinese President Xi Jinping's government began treating all Uyghurs as possible terrorists after some militants resorted to violence to protest the Han majority's rule and incentives from Beijing to encourage Han migration into Xinjiang. Communist Party officials launched what they called the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism" in 2014, after Uyghur militants orchestrated an attack at a train station that year that left 31 people dead.

In the 2018 speech contained in the police files, Chen, who was then the Communist Party secretary for Xinjiang, said the "strike hard" campaign had been highly effective and must continue.

"The high-pressure strike hard posture cannot be weakened in the slightest," Chen said in the remarks, according to a translation verified for USA TODAY by an independent Mandarin speaker. "The separatists are lurking beneath the current state of high-pressure, and if this state changes, they will reappear after a while."

Chen said the fight against terrorism is "complex and arduous" and called on local party officials to "earnestly prepare for a long-term struggle."

But perhaps his most chilling remarks came when he spoke about preventing escapes from the internment facilities. He said the camps have "multiple lines of defense," including walls of copper and iron. And if anyone tries to breach them, "fire must resolutely be opened."

He warned against any laxness among police and in recalling a 2009 Uyghur riot, he said security forces should "first kill and then report" anyone who challenges the state now.

In another speech, delivered in 2017, Chen said the police must "shoot dead all of the terrorists and have zero casualties for our police officers and military police."

A slow-motion genocide in Xinjiang?

In 2019, some Chinese officials suggested the "reeducation" facilities were being scaled back. The governor of Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, himself a Uyghur, said enlisted trainees had all "graduated" and new enlistees would be able to come and go from the facilities freely.

Zenz and others say some lower-security facilities were shuttered, including one in Shufu County, but China expanded higher-security facilities. (The Uyghurs refer to Shufu as Konasheher County.)

"There’s some evidence that lower security facilities have been decommissioned, with detainees transferred to mandatory job assignments or ‘community management and control,’ which is similar to house arrest," according to a 2021 report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The nonpartisan think tank said China's official statistics show that, since 2019, "long and unjustified prison sentences have surged in Xinjiang" and satellite images show high-security prisons expanding.

Similarly, the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report, released in April, said that officials in Xinjiang expanded internment camps for Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in 2021.

"In some cases authorities used repurposed schools, factories, and prisons to hold detainees," the U.S. agency said. The State Department has labeled China's treatment of the Uyghurs a "genocide," saying in its April report that Beijing had arbitrarily imprisoned more than 1 million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in "extrajudicial internment camps," or other forms of detention that severely restricted their liberty.

Clarke said some Uyghurs appear to have been formally sentenced for various crimes and moved into China's official prison system, in what he sees as a consolidation of the anti-Uyghur policies.

"This architecture of repression is kind of going to be bedded down in Xinjiang for the foreseeable future," he said.

Tobin, the University of Sheffield expert, said the form of genocide China is implementing is different from what the world has seen in other countries.

"We think of genocide as physical elimination of a people – massacres, mass killings, gas chambers and so forth," he said. But China has a different historical narrative its leaders are seeking to preserve – one of harmoniously absorbing ethnic minorities into Chinese culture.

Thus the focus on reeducation and the restrictions on Uyghur language and religion, he said.

"It's quarantining them and containing them within China, so that they must be Chinese," he said.

In 2021, Zakir, the Uyghur governor, held an online forum titled "Xinjiang is a wonderful land," focused in part on refuting allegations of repression and touting the region's "achievements in economic and social development."

He said there had not been any violent "terrorist" attacks in Xinjiang for more than four years, and he called the genocide accusation "the biggest defamation in human history," according to a government account of the event.

"In Xinjiang, the rights of all ethnic groups to use and develop their own spoken and written languages are protected, and fine ethnic cultures are protected, carried forward and promoted," he said.

But Mahmud Tohti, the Uyghur who now lives in Turkey, says he cannot even return to his hometown to see his family, find his children or visit his home.

“I want to go back and die in my hometown,” he said. He ordered a tomb for his grave and once built a little mulberry garden for his parents’ graves. But he later learned those had been destroyed, and now he’s too afraid to ever return.

Looking at old photographs of his family, he says he is filled with an indescribable fury.

“Why," he asked, "can’t I see my children?"

Contributing: Mary Chao,northjersey.com; Doug Caruso, Dan Keemahill and Ella Lee, USA

This report is part of an international coalition of media partners. Each news organization obtained the documents, then worked collectively but also independently to report stories about the contents. Coalition members include: DER SPIEGEL, Politiken, Le Monde, Mainichi Newspapers, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Bayerischer Rundfunk, L'Espresso, BBC News, NHK WORLD-JAPAN, El País, Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, Dagens Nyheter, Aftenposten and USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Xinjiang police files reveal details of Uyghur internment in China