The bodies of 20 Chinese people featured in a UK museum exhibition could be those of prisoners once detained in labour camps, and victims of the death penalty in China, according to a leading doctor.
The Real Bodies exhibition, currently at the Birmingham NEC, publicly displays the skinless preserved bodies. But there are now calls for an investigation into their identities and cause of death to be held while they are in the UK.
The bodies were provided to the event organisers, Imagine Exhibitions, through the Dalian Medical University in China.
Campaigner Dr David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist at City Hospital Birmingham, said that the university’s facilities in the city of Dalian were within driving distance of labour and prison camps. Coupled with the large number of bodies of the same age and gender, and the lack of any identity information, Nicholl suspects the bodies could be those of executed inmates.
“I have huge questions about why all these unclaimed bodies come from Dalian in sizeable numbers and how many bodies Imagine Exhibitions have actually got,” he said. “My own registrar went to this exhibition. I asked him to note down the gender and age of the bodies. They are all young men – none of them are elderly, which I have to say is pretty suspicious given that there are a number of labour camps within a matter of hours’ drive of Dalian.
“If you look at these exhibitions they are never gender balanced – it’s always largely men. Most people who die, die when they’re older, so to have an exhibition like this is really suspicious.”
Nicholl says event organisers were never given consent by individuals or their families for the bodies to be used. “I think the public are being conned,” he said. “Why are we having exhibitions like this in this country if they can’t prove consent?” Israel banned the exhibition in 2012 in a decision taken by judges in the Israeli Supreme Court, said Nicholl.
US investigative reporter and author Ethan Gutmann also alleges that the bodies in the exhibition could be political prisoners who practiced Falun Gong, a religion banned in China in the late 90s. This move is thought to have resulted in thousands of people being imprisoned and executed in labour camps.
Gutmann believes that one of the places bodies of persecuted people may have been taken to was Dalian Medical University, as it is in the same province as Masanjia labour camp, one of the largest camps in China “specialising in Falun Gong”.
“It’s a crime against humanity,” he said. “Several hundred thousand people were executed purely for being Falun Gong and you have a company which is potentially sending evidence all over the world.”
Nicholl and Guttman are among the doctors, human rights activists, MPs and Lords who have signed a letter to Theresa May stating that the exhibition should be shut down.
Guttman says he hopes the specimens will be DNA tested. “The DNA can be extracted and used to prove relations,” he said. “If we make some matches, we can identify family lines and you could ask them, do you have a missing person?
“People in England have a right to know what they are seeing and people in China have a right to know what happened to their loved ones.”
The Dalian Medical University released a statement in response saying: “All of these specimens are unclaimed bodies and are legally authorised to be received by the city morgue.
“The specimens that are being presented in Real Bodies: The Exhibition were originally received from the city morgue and then transferred to medical universities in China and ultimately were legally donated to Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Laboratory for preservation, dissection and exhibition.”
The statement rejected allegations that the specimens died of unnatural causes, detailing that following inspection “there is absolutely no evidence” that they “received trauma or physical abuse associated with torture, execution or other violent injury”.
The president of Imagine Exhibitions, Tom Zaller, called the suspicions about the bodies “fake news”.
“I refuse to entertain these ridiculous accusations without a shred of evidence to back these baseless claims,” he said.
The exhibition includes more than 200 human organs, foetuses and body parts, also sourced from China, and has already been viewed by millions around the world.
By Helena Vesty