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While the world has slowly turned its attention to the communist Chinese government’s human rights abuses over the last few months, Tahir Hamut has been painfully aware of them for many years.
Hamut — a Uighur filmmaker and poet — was born in China’s Uighur Autonomous Region in 1969 and worked as a teacher before his life was changed forever in 1996.
“I was detained on my way to study in Turkey and accused of attempting to escape from China with sensitive state materials,” Hamut explained via an interpreter. After that, he said, he was in a Chinese prison for 18 months and was sentenced to three years in a labor camp. That sentence was handed down in 1997.
He said that, at the time of his incarceration, “nearly 350” prisoners were in the same labor camp, 230 of which were political prisoners.
Hamut made the remarks to lead off a Tuesday panel discussion on Capitol Hill about the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against the country’s Uighur Muslim minority — e.g., the mass internment of Uighurs in concentration camps and subsequent forced labor.
“In the beginning, along with other labor camp prisoners, I dug gravel in an uninhabitable place which was not far from the labor camp,” Hamut recalled. “Every day, excluding Sundays, each person must complete a task of digging 2 cubic meters of gravel; everyone worked very hard to make this requirement, otherwise they would get punished by torture.”
Hamut said that prisoners would often have serious health problems as a result of the “excessive hard labor” but often went without proper medical treatment in the camps, leaving them to suffer for the rest of their lives, while others died as a result.
“I was in the labor camp for more than a year, around 18 months, and my weight dropped to 45 kilograms” or just under 100 lbs., Hamut recalled.
“I thought I would die there, but I managed to survive with the help of other prisoners.”
Later, Hamut said, he was transferred from the gravel work to a brick factory, where his job was to bake bricks. In addition to those duties, he noted that he and others had to plant crops, pick cotton, and even do domestic work for policemen. He also says that the labor camp used prisoner labor to make money.
Hamut was eventually released and, years later, would escape to the United States in August 2017. But getting out of China didn’t mean he was free of the effects of Chinese repression. He said that multiple members of his family, including two of his wife’s brothers and his own brother, have been detained by Chinese authorities and placed in the concentration camps that made international headlines earlier this year.
“For the past two years we have been thinking of them and are concerned for their safety,” Hamut said. “I hope they are safe.”
He added that he learned that earlier this year, two members of his wife’s family were released from the concentration camps, but they are only allowed to go home two days per week and are forced to work at a factory during the other five.
“My wife’s brothers and other family members have no idea how long this forced labor will last, and we also don’t know what kind of factories they are,” Hamut concluded. “We still hope that they will be safe.”