Inside China’s secret Uyghur detention system

Rahile Omer looks into the camera, her angular face expressionless. Her eyes hold the only hint of emotion.

She has been flagged by China’s sweeping surveillance system in Xinjiang province. It monitors Uyghurs, the Muslim ethnic group, and other minority groups for “micro-clues” that officials deem suspicious. Rahile has been deemed a “Type 12 person,” someone connected to an existing police case.

She is 14 years old.

In Rahile’s case, the flag was triggered by a family connection, according to police records; her mother was serving six years in prison for allegedly disturbing “the social order” after authorities accused her of following a puritanical form of Islam and engaging in extremist religious practices. The girl’s father, also labeled a “Type 12 person,” had already been sent to a “reeducation” camp after being detained in 2017.

Now, Rahile’s mug shot is captured by an official’s digital camera. Her name and supposed infractions are logged in a spreadsheet along with those of thousands of other people. And Rahile, too, will be sent to a camp that outside experts say is essentially a prison.

The photo and details of Rahile Omer’s case are among thousands of secret files that were obtained from computer systems of two local police agencies in China, according to a U.S.-based China researcher, Adrian Zenz.

Zenz, a well-known expert on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, says a hacker extracted the files and gave them to him. Zenz then launched an extensive effort to authenticate the records and provided them to an international media consortium, including USA TODAY. Journalists independently reviewed the massive trove of records and verified portions of the contents, which experts say offer an unprecedented look inside China’s detention and internment of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

Zenz published a peer-reviewed research paper on his findings Tuesday, along with a website that discloses thousands of photos and other evidence.

The files include more than 5,000 photos of what appear to be Uyghur people taken at police facilities – essentially mug shots. Zenz concluded thousands of those people were held in detention at the time the…