Hong Kong (CNN) On the first day of her new teaching job at a Chinese government-run detention center in Xinjiang, Qelbinur Sidik said she saw two soldiers carry a young Uyghur woman out of the building on a stretcher.
“There was no spark of life in her face. Her cheeks were drained of color, she was not breathing,” said Sidik, a former elementary school teacher who says she was forced to spend several months teaching at two detention centers in Xinjiang in 2017.
A policewoman who worked at the camp later told her the woman had died from heavy bleeding, though she didn’t say what caused it. It was the first of many stories the policewoman would tell Sidik during the teacher’s three-month assignment at the heavily-fortified building that housed female detainees.
According to Sidik, the policewoman claimed to have been assigned to investigate reports of rape at the center by her superiors, though CNN has no evidence of that claim. However, Sidik said what she heard and saw herself was so disturbing that it made her ill.
Sidik’s allegations are similar to those of former detainees who have spoken of rape and systematic sexual assault within China’s vast detention network.
Her testimony is a rare account of a worker’s direct experience of life inside the detention centers, where the US government alleges China is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities through a repressive campaign of mass detention, torture, forced birth control and abortions.
The Chinese government has rejected allegations of genocide, and in a statement to CNN said “there is no so-called ‘systematic sexual assault and abuse against women’ in Xinjiang.”
However, Sidik said the female police officer described how her male colleagues used to boast about it. “When (male guards) were drinking at night, the policemen would tell each other how they raped and tortured girls,” Sidik told CNN from her new home in the Netherlands.
Qelbinur Sidik went from being an elementary school teacher to someone forced to teach Mandarin to detainees.
Inside the camps
An ethnic Uzbek, Sidik grew up in Xinjiang and spent 28 years teaching elementary school students aged from six to 13. In September 2016, she said she was summoned to a meeting at the Saybagh District Bureau of Education and told she’d be working with “illiterates.”
In March 2017, she met her new students — about 100 men and a handful of women. “They came in, their feet and hands chained in shackles,” she said.
At her first lesson, Sidik said she turned to the chalkboard only to hear the detainees behind her crying. “I turned slightly, I saw their tears falling down their beards, the female detainees were crying loudly,” she said.
Young detainees who arrived at the centers “fit, robust and bright-eyed” quickly sickened and weakened, she said. From her classroom in the basement of one camp, Sidik said she could hear screams. When she asked about their cries, she claims a male policeman told her that detainees were being tortured.
“During the time I was teaching in there, I witnessed horrific tragedy,” Sidik said.
CNN has no way of verifying Sidik’s account from inside the detention centers. However, former Xinjiang detainees have told CNN they were subjected to political indoctrination and abuse, and Uyghurs who now live abroad have described relatives disappearing into detention. Leaked documents provided to CNN showed Uyghurs could be sent to the camps for as little as having a beard or wearing a veil.
The Chinese government has claimed the camps are “vocational training centers,” part of an official strategy to both stamp out violent Islamist extremism and create jobs.
“There is no ’rounding up thousands of Uyghur Muslims’,” said Xu Guixiang, a spokesperson for the Communist Party publicity department in Xinjiang, at a government press conference on February 1.
“What we have cracked down on, according to the law, are a few heinous and obstinate leaders and backbones of extremist groups. What we have rescued are those who have been infected with religious extremism and committed minor crimes.”
‘Then I was gang raped’
Tursunay Ziyawudun said she had committed no crime when she was first detained in April 2017, after returning home to Xinjiang’s Xinyuan County to obtain official documents. She and her husband had been living for five years in neighboring Kazakhstan.
Her husband, Halmirza Halik, an ethnic Kazakh, was not detained and tracked her down to the Xinyuan County Vocational School. “We spoke through the iron gate of the school,” said Halik, speaking by phone with CNN from Kazakhstan. “She cried after seeing me. I told her don’t be afraid … you have not broken the law and there is nothing to worry about.”
Speaking to CNN from the US, Tursunay Ziyawudun said that she was taken to a cell with about 20 other women, where they were given little food and water.
The authorities released Ziyawudun after a month in detention, but then summoned her back to the camp in March 2018, which she claimed marked the beginning of a 9-month nightmare.
Speaking to CNN from the US, Ziyawudun said that she was taken to a cell with about 20 other women, where they were given little food and water and only allowed to use the toilet once a day for three to five minutes. “Those who took more time were electrocuted with shock batons,” she said.
During her detention, Ziyawudun says guards interrogated her about her years in Kazakhstan, asking whether she had ties to Uyghur exile groups.
During one of these sessions, she claims police officers kicked and beat her until she passed out. Another time, while still bruised from her beating, Ziyawudun claimed two female guards took her to another room where they laid her on a table. “They inserted a stun baton inside me and twisted and shocked me with it. I blacked out,” she said.
Ten days later, she says a group of male guards took her away from her cell. “In the next room I heard another girl crying and screaming. I saw about 5 or 6 men going into that room. I thought they were torturing her. But then I was gang raped. After that I realized what they also did to her,” Ziyawudun said, through tears. She said it happened multiple times while she was detained in the camps.
“They were extremely sadistic, causing pain and damage to the body by beating and smacking my head on the wall … it was their way of punishing us.”
Ziyawudun’s allegations of rape and torture were first reported by the BBC. CNN is unable to independently verify Ziyawudun’s claims, but they are similar to accounts from Gulbakhar Jalilova, an ethnic Uyghur from Kazakhstan.
Speaking to CNN in July 2020, Jalilova, described being locked in a “prison-like” room with about 20 other women after she was detained in May 2017.
Jalilova said she confronted one guard who sexually assaulted her. “I told him, ‘Aren’t you ashamed? Don’t you have a mother, a sister, how can you do this to me like that?’ He hit me with the electroshock prod and said, ‘You don’t look like a human’,” she said.
On the night of September 26, 2019, after being warned by Chinese authorities not to speak of her experiences in detention, Ziyawudun said she walked across the Kazakhstan border to her waiting husband.
But in the days that followed, Ziyawudun’s health deteriorated, and she suffered vaginal bleeding.
In 2020, Ziyawudun was rushed to the US for medical treatment. Shortly after her arrival, doctors surgically removed her uterus, with medical records seen by CNN showing she was diagnosed for a pelvic abscess and vaginal bleeding, as well as tuberculosis.
She said she blamed her medical complications on her treatment in the Xinjiang camps, although CNN cannot verify this conclusion.
“(After she got out) she didn’t tell me anything about her experiences in the camp,” Halik says. “Sometimes she would cry at night and I was very angry. I knew that these things she experienced were not good, but I didn’t dare to ask.”
Tursunay Ziyawudun now lives in the US after being rushed there for medical treatment for problems she says are related to her detention.
Denials and shame
In a statement to CNN, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not address the allegations made by the three women directly but instead issued a broad denial.
“We hope that the relevant media can distinguish right from wrong, not be deceived and misled by false news and biased reports,” the Foreign Ministry said, adding that their training centers “protect the basic rights of trainees including women from being violated, and it is strictly forbidden to insult and abuse trainees in any way.”
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region administration has not responded to requests for comment.
In a news conference on February 3, Chinese officials introduced some ethnic minority women who they said had “graduated” from the system, and “shared how they got rid of extreme thoughts.” They also said reports of mass rape and forced sterilization were “sheer nonsense” and state media has sought to personally discredit the women’s claims.
For example, in an article published on February 10, the Global Times accused Gulbakhar Jalilova of being “an actor” and Tursunay Ziyawudun of lying about her forced sterilization, quoting a senior official saying that “all her family members know that she is inherently infertile.” Ziyawudun told CNN she had a forced IUD insertion, not sterilization.
Ziyawudun said she had no reason to make up her allegations. “I am a woman in my forties. Do you think this is something I can be proud of sharing with the world?” she said.
“I would tell them I am not afraid of them anymore, because they already killed my soul.”
For her part, Sidik, the teacher, said she was told by her husband that government officials had come to his house and coached him for four hours about how to film a short video denying his wife’s claims of being in a detention center.
She said her husband told her to never come back to Xinjiang. “He blocked me again on Wechat, I don’t know, is he alive or dead now?” she said.
Enwer Erdem and Arslan Khakiyev contributed to this report.
By Nimi Princewill, CNN Updated 10:13 AM ET, Mon February 22, 2021
Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) — Nigeria’s airforce has said its plane, which crashed shortly after take-off from Abuja airport on Sunday morning — killing everyone on board — was on a mission to rescue the schoolchildren kidnapped last week.
A spokesman told CNN the aircraft was on surveillance operations in Niger State as part of efforts to rescue at least 42 schoolchildren and staff members taken by gunmen from the Government Science School Kagara last Wednesday. One student died during the attack.
Air Vice-Marshal Ibikunle Daramola told CNN on Monday afternoon that the air force had donated the military plane to a joint task force coordinating the rescue operation in Kagara.
“The rescue effort is being coordinated by a multi-agency team… the crashed aircraft was part of the air force’s contribution to the rescue mission,” he added.
Daramola told CNN that the airforce would continue to support the rescue operation.
He added that all families of the personnel have been informed, and an investigation launched.
The ongoing rescue efforts followed a directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to the armed forces and police to ensure all captives are rescued.
By Caitlin Hu and Etant Dupain, CNN Updated 7:44 PM ET, Sun February 21, 2021
(CNN) — Large crowds of Haitians took to the streets again on Sunday, as a standoff between President Jovenel Moise and the country’s opposition movement stretched into its third week.
“Those of us fighting, who want another Haiti, a Haiti pearl of the Antilles, say no to the dictatorship,” one protester told Reuters in capital city Port-au-Prince, where Haitian opposition and civil society groups had called the demonstration. Another criticized the United States and international organizations for supporting the President.
At the heart of protests is a dispute over the President’s term limit: Moise has served only four years of the usual five, and says his term ends in 2022 — a stance backed by the United States, United Nations and Organization of American States.
Protesters, however, say he should have stepped down February 7, citing a constitutional provision that starts the clock once a president is elected, rather than when he takes office.
“We want the international community (to) understand that the Haiti people won’t back down on their demands. Jovenel Moise must leave the national palace for a peaceful transition that can lead us to the elections,” opposition leader André Michel told CNN on Sunday.
This month’s protests also reflect years of increasing bitterness in Haiti over the country’s economic pain and violent crime. Killings and a wave of hundreds of kidnappings in particular have driven public outrage, according to a recent United Nations report, which recorded a monthly average of 84 demonstrations in the second half of 2020.
Moise has blamed his administration’s poor record in dealing with such fundamental issues on the country’s system of governance, and on complications and lack of clarity in the constitution itself. “Since the beginning of my term, the country has never known stability,” he acknowledged in a February 12 tweet.
With an eye toward empowering the office of the president for the future, he has vowed to hold a referendum on changes to the constitution in April. This will be his legacy project, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, told CNN.
However, critics are skeptical of the legitimacy of any constitutional changes made in the current political climate and without institutional checks and balances in place. General elections are expected to follow in the fall.
In a speech last Sunday, amid celebrations for Carnival, which he celebrated with large crowds of supporters and revelers, Moise expressed his determination to see the country through another year.
“Haiti is for me, for my kids, for the people here dancing. The people who don’t want me to do the people’s work will stop, or I will make them stop. I was elected to do a job, and I will do it,” he said.
By Sharif Paget Updated 1:41 PM ET, Mon February 22, 2021
(CNN) — Israeli authorities are trying to locate the source of a suspected oil spill that has been described as one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit the country, threatening wildlife, forcing beaches to close and prompting a mass cleanup.
Blobs of sticky tar started washing up on the country’s Mediterranean shores last week. Images posted on official government accounts showed sea birds and turtles covered in tar and sticky oil.
“The enormous amounts of tar emitted in recent days to the shores of Israel from south to north caused one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit Israel,” the country’s Nature and Parks Authority said Sunday.
The extent of the pollution is so bad, Israel’s Ministry of Interior issued an advisory Sunday urging people to stay away from the country’s beaches.
A massive cleanup is underway but the Nature and Parks Authority said it would take a long time to make the marine area safe again. It has established a registration and information center for volunteers who wish to help.
A woman holds a dead fish after she cleaned it from tar from a suspected oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, on February 20.
“I was very impressed by the exemplary voluntarism of the citizens who came to clean up the beaches. We must maintain our beaches, our country and the environment,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office.
“I have just spoken with the Egyptian Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister who has come to us, and we proposed that every ship that you see here be powered by natural gas instead of polluting fuel, as happened here,” he continued.
Gamliel said it was their “moral obligation to the public is to locate those responsible for the event,” according to the statement.
“We have the possibility of suing the insurance company of the ship that is responsible for the pollution and we will do everything to locate it,” she said.
In a separate statement posted to her Twitter account, Gamliel said, “We are making every effort to find those responsible for the disaster, and we will bring to the government’s approval tomorrow a proposal for resolutions to rehabilitate the environment.”
Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) Seven people were killed when a Nigerian military plane crashed on approach to Abuja airport on Sunday, a spokesman for Nigeria’s Air Force said.
“All 7 personnel on board died in the crash,” Air Vice Marshal Ibikunle Daramola said on Twitter.
He added that the Chief of the Air Staff has ordered an immediate investigation into the incident.
“A military aircraft King Air 350 has just crashed short of our Abuja runway after reporting engine failure enroute [to] Minna. It appears to be fatal,” said the country’s aviation minister, Hadi Sirika, confirming the incident in a statement.
This is to confirm that a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Beechcraft KingAir B350i aircraft crashed while returning to the Abuja Airport after reporting engine failure enroute Minna. First responders are at the scene. Sadly, all 7 personnel on board died in the crash
In a follow-up communication Sunday afternoon, a spokesman at the Ministry of Aviation, James Odaudu, said the “aircraft reported engine failure at time 10:39 and crashed landed on the final approach path of Abuja Runway 22 at time 10:48UTC.”
Odaudu said fire fighters have been deployed to the scene to put out a raging blaze that had engulfed the airplane.
An aviation worker who asked not to be named — citing lack of official clearance to talk to the press — told CNN that he witnessed the crash.
“The crash occurred not very far from the runway. The pilot had tried returning to the runway after taking off,” he said.
The worker said the pilot swerved the plane to its crash site which is in a desolate area. He said the aircraft narrowly avoided warehouses and makeshift settlements around the Nnamdi Azikwe International airport.
By Tara John, CNN
Updated 7:29 PM ET, Sat February 20, 2021
(CNN) — Eighteen months ago, Malcolm was at the vanguard of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Full of bravado and often clad in black, the 21-year-old oversaw a group of 60 combative front-liners who embraced confrontational tactics against the police while demanding greater democracy in the former British colony.
Today, he is applying for asylum in the United Kingdom, and separated from his family in Hong Kong where he feels he can longer visit. Malcom believes if he returns to the Chinese city he could be arrested under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong last June, which scaled up penalties against dissent to include punishments as severe as life imprisonment.
Since then, nearly 100 activists have been arrested under the new law. When Hong Kong police apprehended a protester friend of Malcolm’s in October, he booked a red-eye flight to London. Malcolm asked CNN not to use his real name, for fear that his family — who remain in Hong Kong — could face repercussions.
The British government has called the security law a clear violation of the “one country, two systems” policy meant to ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing until 2047. In its wake, the UK has opened a six-year pathway to British citizenship for holders of British National (Overseas) passports (BN(O)), a special visa category created for Hong Kong nationals before the 1997 transfer of power.
Sze has settled into London life: She already has strong opinions on the snail’s pace of London buses and is counting the days to when lockdown ends and she can go shopping on Oxford Street.
While it can be hard to find the authentic Cantonese cuisine she grew up eating in Hong Kong, Sze marvels at how much cheaper food is at British supermarkets.
“The food quality is better, the price is cheaper and the rent is cheaper,” she told CNN.
Sze cannot get a job until her BN(O) visa is approved, but she is optimistic that the UK’s coronavirus-induced economic slump will not get in the way of her finding work. “I am open to any [job] option — it really depends on how much savings I have,” she said.
But her biggest concern is the fate of fellow dissidents going through the asylum process, and whether her compatriots who move to the UK will give up the fight for independence back home.
“Hong Kongers should never give up, no matter if they’ve left Hong Kong or not,” she said.