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In a recent interview with Al Jazeera English, Uyghur activist, Ilshat Hassan, spoke about the Chinese government’s ongoing persecution of Turkic minorities in the Xinjiang region, where the U.S. State Department believes “millions” are being held in concentration camps. Hassan believes that the U.S. State Department’s estimates on how many Uyghurs have been detained are conservative, and that there are likely “over two million” prisoners locked away in internment camps, which the Chinese government deems vocational “education centers.”

Hassan, who is the President of the Uyghur American Association, fled Xinjiang in 2003 and, like many Uyghurs who are forced to leave China for fear of their lives, has been living in exile ever since. He says that while the Chinese government’s repressive practices have only recently grabbed global attention, the reality is that Uyghurs in Xinjiang have faced persecution for many decades. As an activist and teacher in Xinjiang, Hassan said he experienced and witnessed “strong discrimination” by the Chinese government against himself and other Uyghurs, which included attempts to ban the Uyghur language, and a constant surveillance of Uyghur schools, universities, and institutions. On a number of occasions, Hassan claims he was arrested, interrogated, and tortured by Chinese authorities, who electrocuted him and beat him until his teeth fell out.

After Hassan left Xinjiang in 2003, Chinese authorities began arresting and torturing his family. Hassan claims that his brother was killed one year after he left, in 2004, and that his sister was arrested in 2014 as punishment for his activism. Like other Uyghurs in his situation, Hassan has no way of communicating with his family in Xinjiang, or knowing what their condition is. He does not know whether his sister, mother, uncle, nephews, and other members of his family are still alive, and claims this is a “common experience” for Uyghurs everywhere.

Hassan is not very optimistic about the future of Xinjiang. Despite his desire to see the United States play an “ethical” role (by placing sanctions on China for its abuses), he thinks a possible trade deal between China and the U.S. may, instead, persuade the latter to look the other way as Uyghurs continue to be persecuted on an industrial scale.

Watch the full interview here.

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