Before American troops made their way into the Nazi concentration camps in Germany, America had no idea of how horrible to scenario on the ground actually was. The same might be said about China’s outrageous attack on the Uighur people.

A leak of thousands of photos and official documents from Xinjiang has shed new light on the extent of alleged abuses against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s far western region.

The files, obtained by US-based academic Adrian Zenz, were published as UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet began a long-awaited and controversial trip to Xinjiang where Beijing is accused of “crimes against humanity” for its treatment of the Uighurs.

Activists have said Chinese authorities have detained at least one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in a network of detention camps and prisons in the region, which Beijing has defended as vocational skills training centres necessary to tackle “extremism”.

But the trove of police photographs and internal documents – sent to Zenz by an anonymous source who hacked into official databases in Xinjiang – adds to evidence that the mass internments are far from voluntary, with leaked documents showing top leaders in Beijing, including President Xi Jinping, calling for a forceful crackdown.

“This is by far the most important leak of evidence from the region and the largest and the most significant,” Zenz told Al Jazeera. “It’s much more significant than anything we’ve seen before because it contains evidence on so many levels.”

Until now, only a few officials associated with Xinjiang have been subjected to US sanctions, but Zenz says the trove of files directly implicates Xi and China’s central government in the crackdown in the region.

Camp instructions

The Xinjiang Police Files have been publicly shared online as a special project of the Victims of Communism Memorial Fund, where Zenz also works.

The documents include detailed instructions on how to run internment camps, from what kinds of force can be used against prisoners to details such as how to man watch towers with sniper rifles and infantry-grade machine guns.

They also include a 2017 internal speech by Chen Quanguo, a former Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, in which he allegedly ordered guards to shoot to kill anyone who tried to escape, and called for officials in the region to “exercise firm control over religious believers”.

In a 2018 internal speech, Public Security Minister Zhao Kezhi mentioned direct orders from Xi to increase the capacity of detention facilities.

Some of the most disturbing files are the nearly 5,000 photos taken at internment camps including 2,884 of detained Uighurs taken by police officers.

After initially denying the existence of the camps, Beijing said in 2018 they were vocational training schools, and Uighurs and other minorities attended them voluntarily.

But the leaked documents provide an insight into how leaders saw the minority population as a security threat, with Zhao warning that more than two million people in southern Xinjiang alone had been “severely influenced by the infiltration of extremist religious thought”.

UN pressure

The more than 2,800 police photos of Xinjiang detainees include minors such as 17-year-old Zeytunigul Ablehet, detained for listening to an illegal speech, and 16-year-old Bilal Qasim, apparently held captive for being related to other detainees.

Zenz said the photos were powerful because they showed the “reality of looking these people in the face” rather than resigning them to statistics.

The files, parts of which have been verified by multiple news organisations including the BBC and Le Monde, also provide a window into life in the detention facilities.

Photos appear to show officers restraining hooded and shackled inmates with batons, while other guards wearing camouflage stand by with firearms.

Zenz says the file leak was not intentionally timed with Bachelet’s trip to Xinjiang this week but will loom large over it. The trip is expected to be highly orchestrated although Bachelet has repeatedly asked for “unfettered” access to the region.

“This certainly puts [Bachelet] under higher pressure not to just to have a few polite smiles and photo ops with the Chinese government,” Zenz said.

Following her trip, Bachelet’s office is expected to release a long-awaited report on Xinjiang. While other UN agencies have released findings, this will be the first report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Bachelet has asked to visit Xinjiang since 2018 when news of the internment camps was verified by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Her trip has been delayed by lengthy negotiations on access with China, and events like the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which China reportedly did not want to risk being overshadowed by a major scandal.

‘Appalled’

The Xinjiang Police Files are the second major data dump related to Xinjiang. In 2019, more than 400 pages of internal documents known as the “Xinjiang” were leaked online and also verified by Zenz.

The United States voiced horror on Tuesday at the new files and said they showed that abuse had probably been approved at the highest levels in Beijing.

“We are appalled by the reports and the jarring images,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

“It would be very difficult to imagine that a systemic effort to suppress, to detain, to conduct a campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity would not have the blessing – would not have the approval – of the highest levels of the PRC government,” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

“We have and we continue to call on the PRC to immediately release all those arbitrarily detained people, to abolish the internment camps, to end mass detention, torture, forced sterilisation, and the use of forced labour,” Price added.

Meanwhile, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the details of the newly leaked documents “shocking”, and urged China to grant Bachelet “full and unfettered access to the region so that she can conduct a thorough assessment of the facts on the ground”.

Germany also called for a transparent investigation into the “shocking” allegations. In a phone call with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock pointed to “the shocking reports and new evidence of very serious human rights violations in Xinjiang”, according to a German foreign ministry statement.

Baerbock “called for a transparent investigation” into the allegations, the statement added.

But China’s foreign ministry dismissed the leaked documents as “cobbled-together material” by “anti-China forces smearing Xinjiang”, with spokesman Wang Wenbin accusing the media of “spreading lies and rumours”.

Also, China’s ambassador to the UK, Zheng Zeguang, tweeted, “Such a shame for BBC to carry the fabricated story about so-called ‘detention camps’. Pathetic for the media, in cahoots with the notorious rumour monger, to once again spread disinformation about Xinjiang.”