- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 12, 2019

BEIJING (AP) — Heavily guarded internment camps for Muslims which China calls vocational training centers will gradually disappear if there comes a time that “society does not need” them, regional authorities said Tuesday.

The camps in the far-west Xinjiang region have elicited an international outcry, with former inmates describing harsh conditions in which Muslim minorities are subject to political indoctrination and psychological torture. Human rights groups, researchers and the U.S. government estimate around 1 million people from the predominantly Muslim Uighur and Kazakh ethnic groups are held in a network of compounds spread throughout the vast region.

At a news conference on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China’s ceremonial legislature, Xinjiang Gov. Shohrat Zakir declined to disclose the number of what he called “trainees.” But he said the figure is “far less” than 1 million and described extensive reports on conditions in the camps as “pure fabrications.”

Zakir said the camps do not target any particular faith, though religious activities are banned in the camps. Ex-detainees say the overwhelming majority of those in the camps are Muslim.

“We fully ensure freedom of religion,” including accommodating Muslim “trainees’” desire for halal food, Zakir said.

Like his immediate predecessors as Xinjiang governor, Zakir is from the region’s native Uighur ethnic group, providing a public face for the government and its claims that Xinjiang is an autonomous region. However, the real decision-making power resides with the region’s ruling Communist Party chief, who is most often part of the country’s Han Chinese ethnic majority.

Current Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo is known for hard-line policies which he previously enacted while serving in the same capacity in the Buddhist region of Tibet. Observers say Chen has now brought an even greater degree of heavy security and surveillance to Xinjiang, where police checkpoints and facial recognition-equipped CCTV cameras have become ubiquitous in recent years.

China maintains that the measures are necessary for combating latent religious extremism. Over the past decade, violence blamed on Uighur radicals — including riots and a bus stop stabbing — have killed hundreds.

Zakir repeated China’s claim that there have been no violent incidents in Xinjiang for more than two years.

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