In messages he sent from inside detention in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, Merdan Ghappar described in detail the workings of a justice system that, he told his loved ones, shackled and hooded him in a small underground holding cell before handcuffing him to a bed in an epidemic-prevention centre.
Now, authorities in Xinjiang say Mr. Ghappar, a 31-year-old fashion model, brought serious consequences upon himself through acts of self-harm and by violence against both police and quarantine personnel.
Mr. Ghappar’s family has not heard from him since March 9. He is Uyghur, part of a largely Muslim group in Xinjiang that Chinese authorities have accused of harbouring extremist ideology.
Since 2017, hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, Uyghurs have been forcibly placed into centres for political indoctrination and skills training. Citing human-rights abuses, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on officials and companies for their actions in Xinjiang.
In a faxed statement, the Xinjiang News Office described Mr. Ghappar – who made a comfortable living in coastal China posing for clothing brands before being jailed on drug charges, released and then subsequently taken back to Xinjiang – as unstable and in need of help.
He “committed acts of self-harm and took aggressive actions against police officers,” the Xinjiang news office said. That forced officers to “take relevant measures to stop him.” Those measures, it said, concluded “after emotions went back to normal.”
Later, the statement said, Mr. Ghappar did not co-operate with virus-prevention requirements. He “refused to let quarantine personnel take his body temperature, interfered with their work and he also cursed, scolded and beat them,” the statement said.
For that reason, “the public security organ has taken compulsory measures against him in accordance with the law, and the case remains in process.”
The faxed statement was sent Monday in response to detailed questions submitted July 30 by The Globe and Mail and the BBC, which jointly reported the story. It comes after China’s foreign ministry lashed out at a report about Mr. Ghappar it called “far-fetched,” seriously inaccurate and full of ideological prejudice.
The description of a belligerent Mr. Ghappar in the Xinjiang statement contrasts with accounts from his family, who say he is gentle and mild-mannered.
“He was very healthy mentally and physically. He loved his career, he loves life. He’s a very positive and energetic person,” said Abdulhakim Ghappar, his uncle, who lives in the Netherlands. “I don’t believe that he harmed himself. I think China harmed Merdan.”
In a series of messages sent to loved ones earlier this year, Mr. Ghappar described being confined for days in a basement room about 50 square metres in size with 50 to 60 other people, crammed so tightly that they could not all lie down to sleep. He and others were kept hooded and shackled hand and foot. He could hear screams that he believes came from people being tortured.
Mr. Ghappar said he was later taken to a community virus-prevention station, where he was handcuffed to a bed. Before he was taken there, he wrote in his messages, he met a group of four young people who had been “beaten until they screamed liked babies” for playing outdoors during the epidemic.
The Xinjiang statement does not address those elements of Mr. Ghappar’s account, nor does it dispute the video of him handcuffed to a bed.
In recent days, other people have posted accounts to Chinese social media describing severe quarantine in Xinjiang, where several said they had been confined in hotels for lengthy periods of time and forced to consume medication. The people who posted those comments, some of which were deleted by censors, did not respond to interview requests.
The statement from Xinjiang authorities confirms key details of what took place, including Mr. Ghappar’s removal from his home in Foshan, a southern manufacturing city near Guangzhou.
Soon after, officers told a friend of his that he had been sent for “education” in Xinjiang.
The Xinjiang press office, however, said Mr. Ghappar had been taken to Xinjiang under China’s Prison Law, which provides for local governments to help resettle former prisoners after their release. That law is typically seen as obligating help for prisoners who emerge from incarceration penniless and homeless.
Mr. Ghappar served 16 months in prison on drug charges. After his release, he was living in his own apartment in Foshan. “He could earn good money if he continued to stay in Foshan, and continued to do his work,” Abdulhakim Ghappar said. “But Chinese authorities forcibly took him to Kucha and detained him.”
The statement from authorities also said Mr. Ghappar had been sent to home quarantine in Kucha, the Xinjiang city where he was born, before he refused to co-operate with epidemic-prevention staff. But Mr. Ghappar left Kucha at the age of 3, his uncle said.
“He has nothing in Kucha,” he said. The family has no knowledge of him spending time in any place other than police detention and the community virus-prevention station.
The statement is also at odds with what police told Mr. Ghappar’s loved ones earlier this year when they inquired about his whereabouts. At no point did officers tell Mr. Ghappar’s friends and family that he had sought to harm himself, been aggressive with police or violated epidemic-prevention measures.
“This message from Chinese state authorities reflects the type of victim blaming that is often used by police when caught using excessive force,” said Darren Byler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies the treatment of Uyghurs in China.
Since China began its campaign against the Uyghurs, “detainees have not been permitted to protest their internment. Instead, they are required to maintain a ‘good attitude’ and admit their guilt under threat of beating and torture,” he said.
The Xinjiang statement “is trying to vindicate the government’s behaviour, and saying that the government behaves responsibly by controlling and constraining a non-compliant person who endangers themselves and others,” said Adrian Zenz, a U.S.-based scholar who is a senior fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
But given the conflicting narratives of what took place, “we are forced to believe Merdan or the government,” he said. “And I would suggest that the government account is made up.”
Mr. Ghappar’s family, meanwhile, said it continues to wait for more tangible evidence of his well-being.
“If China is telling the truth, please show Merdan to us,” Adbulhakim Ghappar said. “Show us that Merdan is healthy and safe.”
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