The documents were the foundation of stories last month by NBC News and journalists around the world on the inner workings of the Uighur camps in China.
A middle-aged Uighur woman living in the Netherlands told a Dutch paper in a story published Saturday that she was a source who leaked secret Chinese documents detailing the operations of China’s Uighur “re-education” camps, and she now fears for her safety.
The documents were the foundation of stories last month by NBC News and more than 75 journalists in 14 countries around the world probing the inner workings of the centers.
While China has claimed Uighurs enter the camps voluntarily, the documents detail the rounding up of Muslims and the prison-like conditions in which they are held in the Western China province of Xinjiang.
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Asiye Abdulaheb, 46, told the daily newspaper de Volksrant, based in Amsterdam, that she received the secret Chinese government documents this summer from unnamed sources, stored them on her laptop, and then worked to share them with the outside world.
NBC News joined the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which obtained the internal memos and bulletins, together with 17 news organizations around the world, to report on the cache.
For at least the last three years, Chinese authorities have been rounding up Uighurs, and outside experts estimate at least 1 million have been subjected to detention. After repeated denials, Chinese authorities began acknowledging the existence of the camps last year, but portrayed them as vocational training centers that help thwart terrorism.
The leaked cache memo — dated 2017 when internments gained momentum — detailed how the camps are designed to be run, from the banality of monitoring bathroom breaks to documenting how China’s high-tech surveillance system is used to identify Uighurs for “re-education.”
Experts described the leak as an extraordinary breach in a country known for crushing dissent.
For her efforts, Abdulaheb said she now faces death threats.
She told the Dutch newspaper that one threat said, “You will end up in pieces in the black Kliko in your front yard.” A Kliko refers to the Dutch name for outdoor trash bins on wheels.
“I need protection,” she told the newspaper.
Abdulaheb said she shared the secret Chinese documents with noted Uighur expert Adrian Zenz, a German academic now living in the U.S.
Zenz said he reached out to her after she tweeted one page of the documents, and that she then provided him with the rest.
According to Zenz, he and a second expert authenticated the documents.
Zenz told NBC News he did not give ICIJ the documents, and ICIJ declined to name its source for the cache.
Abdulaheb and her ex-husband approached Dutch reporters in a bid to seek safety from these threats through publicity. She did not name who passed along the documents to her.
A police officer stands by the road near what is officially called a vocational education center in Yining in Xinjiang, China, on Sept. 4, 2018.Thomas Peter / Reuters
Since publication of the stories, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill calling on the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials responsible for mass detentions and other human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
The investigation revealed details of what Western governments have called one of the greatest human-rights catastrophes of modern times, but previously known largely through former detainees’ personal accounts, satellite photographs and orchestrated tours of select camps.
The Chinese Embassy in the UK, in a written response to reporters about the leak, said the “so-called documents are pure fabrication and fake news.” The statement said: “First, there are no so-called ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang. Vocational education and training centers have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”
Andrew W. Lehren
Andrew W. Lehren is a senior editor with the NBC News Investigative Unit.