Uyghur Student Held in Coronavirus Quarantine Near Xinjiang Internment Camp

2020-02-12

A Uyghur student has been placed in quarantine for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) near an internment camp in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) Atush (in Chinese, Atushi) city, according to an official, amid concerns that conditions in the facilities could lead to a viral outbreak.

Miradil Nurahmat, an undergraduate student majoring in kinesiology at Xinjiang Normal University in the XUAR capital Urumqi, was isolated for observation after returning home to Atush in the region’s Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture to visit his family on Jan. 27, a neighborhood committee chief in the city told RFA’s Uyghur Service last week.

The committee chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said she had reported Nurahmat to the local Communist Party secretary because he arrived from outside of Atush, and that authorities took him to “District 6,” an industrial zone on the outskirts of the city that houses an internment camp.

“He’s under quarantine,” the chief said, adding that Nurahmat could be held anywhere from two to three weeks.

“He came on the 27th [of January] … on a break from school … They let them out of classes on Jan. 17 and he traveled here on Jan. 27, but he didn’t come with any classmates. We decided we had to keep watch on everyone [who could have been exposed to the virus] beginning on Jan. 23.”

The committee chief did not specify whether Nurahmat had exhibited any symptoms of the coronavirus.

On Jan. 23, Chinese state media announced the first confirmed infections in the XUAR—two men who had previously traveled to the epicenter of the virus, Hubei province’s Wuhan city—and by Wednesday at least 59 people have been infected, while more than 4,100 are under medical observation in the region after exhibiting symptoms associated with the virus.

Recent reports on social media, including one by a medical staffer in the XUAR, suggest that as many as 13,000 people from Wuhan may have entered the region ahead of an order by authorities to shut down all transportation in and out of the city of 11 million people last month, although these numbers could not be independently verified by RFA’s Uyghur Service.

The committee chief said she speaks regularly with Nurahmat by phone, and that he is doing well.

“He said there’s one other person in his room and they’re looking after them well—the nurses are taking care of them and there are people bringing food for them,” she said.

Meanwhile, the chief said that since Jan. 23, “we’ve been telling people not to go outside, just to stay where they are, and not to let their kids out,” while “all of the hotels are full” with people from outside of the city who are being held for quarantine.

“There are a lot of travelers and students [staying there],” she said. “[The authorities] said they’re taking everyone who came from outside [of Atush], whether for business or for tourism.”

Last week, RFA spoke with several officials in Atush who said on condition of anonymity that at least 99 residents of Wuhan had been quarantined at the city’s Yashin Hotel, with additional people from the virus’s epicenter possibly held under similar conditions in another guesthouse.

The committee chief said that with the Yashin Hotel now full, authorities have been sending anyone they believe should be quarantined to District 6, and that Nurahmat is being held “in a building next to” an internment camp.

Another local official, who also declined to be named, confirmed to RFA that Nurahmat is being quarantined in District 6 and that it is the site of an internment camp—part of the regional camp system where as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas are believed to have been detained since April 2017.

Growing threat

Reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities that experts warned recently could lead to an epidemic.

News of the ongoing quarantine in Atush came after residents told RFA that on Jan. 31, authorities had declared a state of emergency, rolling out two-meter (6.5-foot) fencing to block local intersections and ordering the city’s approximately 200,000 inhabitants to stay within their homes for roughly three weeks in a move aimed at blocking the threat from COVID-19.

The residents said they had not been notified of the plan ahead of time, and were therefore unable to gather food supplies or other necessities before the start of the lockdown, which they had been notified would be in effect “until Feb. 20 or so.”

As concerns grow of a potential outbreak in the XUAR, the Public Security Bureau on Monday issued guidelines warning of severe punishments for people committing crimes such as “spreading rumors,” “refusing to follow quarantine measures,” and “using violence against medical personnel,” while local officials recently told RFA that information about COVID-19 and how it has spread in the region has been designated a “state secret.”

Multiple officials in different parts of the XUAR claimed to have no knowledge of measures taken by authorities to combat the spread of the virus when reached by phone for comment by RFA, although at least one acknowledged that doctors had been sent to monitor the camps in their region, without providing further details.

State media recently reported that authorities had erected a 4,000 square-meter (43,000 square-foot) hospital dedicated to fighting COVID-19 in the seat of Kumul (Hami) prefecture on the border with Gansu province in seven days, after breaking ground on Jan. 31.

The hospital, which was fully equipped and functional by Feb. 9, is believed to be one of the first to be constructed within 10 days as part of an emergency response to the rapid spread of the virus since authorities built a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan that began accepting patients on Feb. 3.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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