Rushan Abbas, 51, of Herndon, Va., holds a photo of her sister, Gulshan Abbas, Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, in Washington. Rushan Abbas, a Uighur in Washington, D.C., said her sister is among the many Uighurs detained.
HOTAN, CHINA —
Barbed wire and hundreds of cameras ring a massive compound of more than 30 dormitories, schools, warehouses and workshops in China’s far west. Dozens of armed officers and a growling Doberman stand guard outside.
Behind locked gates, men and women are sewing sportswear that can end up on U.S. college campuses and sports teams.
This is one of a growing number of internment camps in the Xinjiang region, where by some estimates 1 million Muslims are detained, forced to give up their language and their religion and subject to political indoctrination. Now, the Chinese government is also forcing some detainees to work in manufacturing and food industries. Some of them are within the internment camps; others are privately-owned, state-subsidized factories where detainees are sent once they are released.
The Associated Press has tracked recent, ongoing shipments from one such factory inside an internment camp to Badger Sportswear, a leading supplier in Statesville, North Carolina. The shipments show how difficult it is to stop products made with forced labor from getting into the global supply chain, even though such imports are illegal in the U.S. Badger CEO John Anton said Sunday that the company would source sportswear elsewhere while it investigates.
Chinese authorities say the camps, which they call training centers, offer free vocational training for Uighurs, Kazakhs and others, mostly Muslims, as part of a plan to bring minorities into “a modern civilized” world and eliminate poverty in Xinjiang. They say that people in the centers have signed agreements to receive vocational training.
The Xinjiang Propaganda Department did not respond to a faxed request for comment. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman accused the foreign media Monday of making “many untrue reports” about the training centers, but did not specify when asked for details.
“Those reports are completely based on hearsay evidence or made out of thin air,” the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said at a daily briefing.
However, a dozen people who either had been in a camp or had friends or family in one told the AP that detainees they knew were given no choice but to work at the factories. Most of the Uighurs and Kazakhs, who were interviewed in exile, also said that even people with professional jobs were retrained to do menial work.
Payment varied according to the factory. Some got paid nothing, while others earned up to several hundred dollars a month, they said — barely above minimum wage for the poorer parts of Xinjiang. A person with firsthand knowledge of the situation in one county estimated that more than 10,000 detainees — or 10 to 20 percent of the internment population there — are working in factories, with some earning just a tenth of what they used to earn before. The person declined to be named out of fear of retribution.
A former reporter for Xinjiang TV in exile said that during his month-long detention last year, young people in his camp were taken away in the mornings to work without compensation in carpentry and a cement factory.
“The camp didn’t pay any money, not a single cent,” he said, asking to be identified only by his first name, Elyar, because he has relatives still in Xinjiang. “Even for necessities, such as things to shower with or sleep at night, they would call our families outside to get them to pay for it.”
Rushan Abbas, a Uighur in Washington, D.C., said her sister is among those detained. The sister, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, was taken to what the government calls a vocational center, although she has no specific information on whether her sister is being forced to work.
“American companies importing from those places should know those products are made by people being treated like slaves,” she said. “What are they going to do, train a doctor to be a seamstress?”
The predominantly Muslim Uighur and Kazakh ethnic minorities in China live mostly in the Xinjiang region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a legacy dating back to ancient traders on the Silk Road. In recent decades, violent attacks by Uighur militants have killed hundreds and prompted the Chinese government to blanket Xinjiang with stifling security.
About two years ago, authorities launched a vast detention and reeducation campaign. They also use checkpoints, GPS tracking and face-scanning cameras for surveillance of ethnic minorities in the region. The slightest perceived misstep can land someone in the internment camps.
Men and women in the complex that has shipped products to Badger Sportswear make clothes for privately-owned Hetian Taida Apparel in a cluster of 10 workshops within the compound walls. Hetian Taida says it is not affiliated with the internment camps, but its workforce includes detainees.
As China faced growing international pressure about the detention camps, its state broadcaster aired a 15-minute report in October that featured a “vocational skills education and training center” in the southern Xinjiang city of Hotan.
“Terrorism and extremism are the common enemy of human civilization,” the China Central Television program began. In response, the report said, the Xinjiang government was using vocational training to solve this “global issue.”
Wu Hongbo, the chairman of Hetian Taida, confirmed that the company has a factory inside the same compound as the training center featured in the China Central Television report. Hetian Taida provides employment to those trainees who were deemed by the government to be “unproblematic,” he said, adding that the center is government-operated.
“We’re making our contribution to eradicating poverty,” Wu told the AP over the phone.
The 20 to 30 trainees at the factory are treated like regular employees and make up a small fraction of the hundreds of people in its workforce, he said.
Trainees featured in the state television report praised the Communist Party for saving them from a criminal path.
“I don’t dare to imagine what would have happened to me if I didn’t come here,” one Uighur student said. “The party and government found me in time and saved me. They gave me a chance to reinvent myself.”
The segment said that in addition to law and Mandarin-language classes, the training center collaborated with companies to give trainees practical experience. Trainees were shown hunched over sewing machines in a factory whose interior matches that of Hetian Taida’s main Hotan branch, as seen in prior Chinese media reports.
Police told the AP journalists who approached the compound earlier this month that they could not take photos or film in the area because it was part of a “military facility.” Yet the entrance was marked only by a tall gate that said it was an “apparel employment training base.”
Posters line the barbed-wire perimeter, bearing messages such as “Learn to be grateful, learn to be an upright person” and “No need to pay tuition, find a job easily.”
Nathan Ruser, a cyber-policy researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), analyzed satellite images for the AP and found that in Hetian Taida’s case, the apparel factory and the government-run training camp are connected by a fenced path.
“There are watchtowers throughout,” Ruser said. “There are clear fences between the buildings and walls that limit movement. Detainees can only access the factories area through walkways, and the entire facility is closed.”
The AP could not independently determine if any workers were allowed to come and go, or how much if anything they were paid.
At least 10 times this year shipping containers filled with thousands of men’s, women’s and youth polyester knitted T-shirts and pants were sent to Badger Sportswear, a 47-year-old athletic gear seller. The company mostly manufactures in Nicaragua and the U.S., and there is no way to tell where the products from Xinjiang specifically end up. But experts say supply chains are considered tainted by forced labor and modern slavery if even one item was produced by someone forced to work.
Sprinkled on the Internet are clues that repeatedly tie the company to the detention camp’s sewing factory floor.
Shawn Zhang, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, noted an overlooked Hotan city social media post from February about the first batch of some 1.5 million pieces of clothing worth $400,000 heading overseas from the Hetian Taida Factory. In the middle of a photo of young women flashing the peace sign is Badger Sportswear’s marketing director Ginny Gasswint, who is quoted as saying she’s surprised the workers are “friendly, beautiful, enthusiastic and hardworking.”
Badger Sportswear goes to sports teams large and small, ranging from ranging from Charlotte Country Day School Squash team in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Rhode Island’s Coventry Little League and Hansberry College Prep in Chicago, according to its website and advertisements. The AP also found dozens of college bookstores advertising their gear printed on Badger Sportswear, including Texas A&M, University of Pennsylvania, Appalachian State University, University of Northern Iowa, University of Evansville and Bates College. However, it’s impossible to say if any particular shirt is made with forced labor.
Badger chief executive Anton said Sunday that his company has sourced products from an affiliate of Hetian Taida for many years. He said about a year ago, the affiliate opened a new factory in western China. Anton confirmed Badger Sportswear officials visited the factory and have a certificate that the factory is certified by social compliance experts.
“We will voluntarily halt sourcing and will move production elsewhere while we investigate the matters raised,” he said.
Badger Sportswear was acquired by New York investment firm CCMP Capital Advisor in August 2016. Since then, CCMP has acquired three more team sportswear companies, which they are managing under the umbrella of Founder Sport Group.
In recent years, Badger imported sportswear — jerseys, T-shirts, workout pants and more — from Nicaragua and Pakistan. But in April this year, it began importing 100 percent polyester T-shirts and pants from Hetian Taida Apparel, according to U.S. customs data provided by ImportGenius, which analyzes consumer shipments. The address on the shipping records is the same as for the detention camp.
The U.S. and United Nations say forced labor is a type of modern slavery, and that items made by people being exploited and coerced to work are banned from import to the U.S.
It’s unclear whether other companies also export products made by forced labor in Xinjiang to the U.S., Europe and Asia. The AP found two companies exporting to the U.S. that share approximately the same coordinates as places experts have identified as internment camps, and Chinese media reports mention “training” there. But the AP could not confirm whether the companies use forced labor.
The detention camp system is part of China’s increasingly stringent state security under President Xi Jinping. Some detainees told AP earlier this year about beating, solitary confinement and other punishments if they do not recite political songs, names and phrases. The AP has not been given access to these facilities despite repeated attempts to get permission to visit.
Not all the camps have forced labor. Many former detainees say they were held in facilities that didn’t have any manufacturing equipment and focused solely on political indoctrination.
“They didn’t teach me anything. They were brainwashing me, trying to make us believe how great China is, how powerful it is, how developed its economy is,” said Kairat Samarkan, a Kazakh citizen who said he was tortured with a metal contraption that contorts your body before being released in February after he tried to kill himself.
Interviewees described a wave of factory openings earlier this year. Ex-detainee Orynbek Koksebek said that shortly before his release in April, the director strode into his class and announced that a factory would be built in the camp. Koksebek, who cannot speak Mandarin, listened to a policeman as he translated the director’s words into Kazakh for the roughly 90 women and 15 men in the room.
“We’re going to open a factory, you’re going to work,” Koksebek recalled him as saying. “We’ll teach you how to cook, how to sew clothes, how to fix cars.”
This fall, months after Koksebek’s release, news began trickling into Kazakhstan that the Chinese government was starting forced labor in internment camps and would transfer some detainees out into gated, guarded factories. The workers must live in dormitories on factory grounds. Contact with family ranges from phone calls or in-person visits, to weekends at home under police surveillance.
In October, Chinese authorities acknowledged the existence of what they called vocational training centers. State media published an interview with Shohret Zahir, the governor of Xinjiang, saying that “some trainees” were nearly done with their “courses.”
“We will try to achieve a seamless connection between school teaching and social employment, so that after finishing their courses, the trainees will be able to find jobs and earn a well-off life,” Zahir said.
The forced labor program goes along with a massive government initiative to develop Xinjiang’s economy by constructing enormous factory parks. Another internment camp the AP visited was inside a factory compound called Kunshan Industrial Park, opened under the national anti-poverty push. A local propaganda official, Chen Fang, said workers inside made food and clothes.
A hospital, a police station, smokestacks, dormitories and a building with a sign that read “House of Workers” could be seen from outside the surrounding barbed wire fencing. Another section resembled a prison, with guard towers and high walls. The AP did not track any exports from Kunshan to the U.S.
Many of those with relatives in such camps said their loved ones were well-educated with high-paying jobs before their arrest, and did not need a poverty alleviation program. Nurbakyt Kaliaskar, a sheepherder’s wife in Kazakhstan, said her daughter, Rezila Nulale, 25, was a college graduate with a well-paid advertising job in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where she lived a typical urban lifestyle with a computer, a washing machine and an apartment in the city center.
Then last August, after returning from a visit to her family across the border in Kazakhstan, Nulale vanished. She didn’t answer phone calls and stopped showing up to work.
Four months later a stranger contacted Kaliaskar online and confirmed her fear: her daughter had been detained for “political training.” The next spring, she said she fainted when two cases of her daughter’s clothes were delivered to her home in Kazakhstan.
Last month, Kaliaskar got word via a friend who knows the family that Nulale was working in a factory next to the camp where she had been detained. The friend had heard from Kaliaskar’s brother, who had visited Nulale, bringing medicine for an injured hand.
Kaliaskar learned her daughter wasn’t being paid and had to meet a daily quota of three articles of clothing. She couldn’t leave. Her uncle thought she looked pale and thin.
They say they’re teaching her to weave clothes. But the thing is, she’s well educated and had a job,” said Kaliaskar. “What’s the point of this training?”
A former detainee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect himself and his family members, said other detainees from his camp also had been forced into jobs at factories far away. They were taken to a government office and handed labor contracts for six months to five years in a distant factory, which they were required to sign.
If they ran from the factories, they were warned, they’d be taken straight back to the camps for “further education.”
Farmers, herders and manual laborers with little Mandarin and no higher education say they appreciated Beijing’s past initiatives to help the poor, including subsidized housing and the installation of electricity and running water. But the camps, the forced education, and the factories, they say, go too far.
“I never asked the government to find work for my husband,” said Mainur Medetbek, whose husband did odd repair jobs before vanishing into a camp in February during a visit to China from their home in Kazakhstan.
She has been able to glean a sense of his conditions from monitored exchanges with relatives and from the husband of a woman who is in the same camp. He works in an apparel factory and is allowed to leave and spend the night with relatives every other Saturday. Though she’s not certain how much her husband makes, the woman in his camp earns 600 yuan (about $87) a month, less than half the local minimum wage and far less than what Medetbek’s husband used to earn.
Since her husband was detained, Medetbek and her children have had no reliable source of income and sometimes go hungry. The ordeal has driven her to occasionally contemplate suicide.
“They say it’s a factory, but it’s an excuse for detention. They don’t have freedom, there’s no time for him to talk with me,” she said. “They say they found a job for him. I think it’s a concentration camp.”
(RNS) — More than 125 members of the minority Ahmadi Muslim sect spent Monday (April 1) on Capitol Hill advocating for international religious freedom causes — particularly lending their voices on behalf of beleaguered Uighur Muslims.
As part of its ninth annual Day on the Hill project, Ahmadi delegates from around the country met with more than 200 members of Congress or their staffers in Washington to encourage support for the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019.
“Islam teaches absolute justice and human rights for all,” said Amjad Mahmood Khan, national director of public affairs for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. “Our faith asks of us not to rest until the international community protects the rights of all people of faith, including the Uighur community, who have endured unspeakable cruelties.”
Delegates also brought attention to the rights of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims and Middle Eastern Christians, whose persecution has been the focus of Hill visits in previous years.
“As a community that is persecuted ourselves in some parts of the Muslim world, we are obligated to stand up for our brothers and sisters in faith who are suffering,” said Khan.
Rep. Tom Suozzi, left, attended the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus’ reception April 1, 2019, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington and met with Ahmadi and Uighur Muslim representatives. Photo courtesy of Harris Zafar
Ahmadi Muslims, who belong to a sect that began in South Asia in the late 1800s, are subject to severe state-sanctioned persecution.
In Pakistan, the constitution forbids Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslim and the penal code imposes the death penalty for Ahmadis who practice their faith freely. Just last month, after years of advocacy from human rights advocates and U.S. political leaders, Pakistan released an 83-year-old Ahmadi bookseller partway through his eight-year prison sentence for propagating his faith.
“What we want for ourselves, we also want for everybody to have that,” explained Mansura Minhas, an Ahmadi woman from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who visited four congressional offices during her visit. “Hearing these personal accounts of Uighurs was simply harrowing. We also understand the repercussions of having religious freedom taken away, so we stand with all our brothers and sisters, regardless of their faith.”
Reports suggest that China has systematically detained more than 1 million members of the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority in western parts of the country, confining them in a massive network of extralegal detention camps.
Authorities insist the camps are for vocational training, but eyewitnesses say detainees are subjected to psychological indoctrination, forced labor, sleep and food deprivation, beatings, waterboarding and other forms of torture, and have been forced to renounce their religion. China’s rapidly expanding surveillance state has also been deployed as part of the brutal crackdown on Uighur and Islamic culture.
“Everything that makes the Uighurs unique has been treated as an abnormality and targeted: language, culture, history, religion and ethnic identity,” said Rushan Abbas, founder and director of Campaign for Uyghurs. Abbas says her aunt and sister vanished in Xinjiang six days after she publicly spoke out about her in-laws’ disappearance.
“Where is the outrage against such horrendous, repugnant catastrophe that is happening on our watch?” Abbas asked at a reception held Monday for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus, a 5-year-old group made up of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. “Isn’t anyone seeing that Uighurs are facing cultural and physical genocide today because of their identity and religion?”
Ahmadi and Uighur representatives met with Rep. Jim McGovern, center, co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington. Photo courtesy Amjad Khan
Abbas and other Uighurs — including a woman whose husband, scholar Yalqun Rozi, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his Uighur-language writings — joined Ahmadi delegates at the reception, as did human rights leaders and several members of Congress.
“It’s very unusual that a group that is under siege themselves takes the time to reach out on behalf of another community and realizes that religious freedom must be truly universal,” said Rep. Pete King, co-chair of the 32-member caucus, which formed in 2014 to focus on global religious freedom and remains the only Muslim caucus in Congress.
In February, a coalition of more than 130 U.S. Muslim leaders and scholars signed an open letter calling for the release of Uighur detainees from internment camps in Xinjiang. But Muslim leaders and governments of Muslim-majority countries around the world have largely remained silent in the face of mass detention of Uighurs.
“The violation of human rights at this scale is a crime against humanity requiring immediate intervention,” Harris Zafar, assistant director of public affairs for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, told Religion News Service. “Muslim countries have been surprisingly silent on the extreme treatment of Uighur Muslims. Some have even forcibly returned Uighurs to China.”
In the U.S., bipartisan political leaders have been increasingly taking up the Uighur cause. Four U.S. representatives published an open letter last month calling on the White House to make good on its promise to explore sanctions on China for its human rights abuses.
Two bills in the House and Senate, which the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus is rallying support for, would direct federal resources to address China’s human rights violations, including the intimidation and threats reported by U.S. Uighurs like Abbas.
“China seems to be at war with faith, and it’s a war they will not win,” noted Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, at the reception. “Governments come and go, but faith stays.”
Brownback, who attended an Ahmadi convention over the summer and met with the group’s international faith leader in October, urged all Americans to bring the Uighur crisis to lawmakers’ attention.
“We need to push this and we need to push this aggressively,” he said. “Advocate, advocate, advocate. Push, push, push. And then also include these issues in your prayers. Put them up in front of God.”
About 400 Muslims from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations were also on Capitol Hill on Monday, hosting their fifth annual National Muslim Advocacy Day to discuss domestic issues affecting Muslim communities.
Source: USA Today
The world is finally waking up to the ongoing and terrifying violations of human rights against the Uighurs — a Muslim minority in Northwest China. My own family is victim to these violations. As both an American citizen and a Uighur, this disaster has ravaged my heart, and shaken me to my very core.
Last September, six days after I spoke about China’s human rights abuses at the Hudson Institute, Chinese police abducted my sister and aunt from their homes. My family members, who both live in Xinjiang but hundreds of miles apart, were abducted on the same day, as a tactic to silence me and stop my activism in the United States. The government has seized the family members of other Uighurian Americans who speak out about their human rights violations — attempting to control and silence us in the United States, as they control and silence our families in China.
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My Uighurian-American niece and I found out about the abductions through some of our remaining contacts in Xinjiang, but members of my family are not the only ones suffering.
China’s long history of repression
I grew up within the rich culture of the Uighurs, in a region occupied by Communist China known as Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan). I witnessed the repression of the Cultural Revolution at a young age — my grandfather was jailed and my father was taken to a reeducation camp. As a student in Xinjiang University, I was one of the organizers in pro-democracy demonstrations in the mid- and late-1980s. When I came to America in 1989, I brought my ideals and experiences with me. Since then, I have consistently campaigned for the human rights of my people by dedicating much of my life to writing and advocating on their behalf.
In Xinjiang, our mosques and religious sites have been bulldozed by a government committed to eradicating our culture. Parents are banned from naming their children traditional Muslim names, and Muslim men are forced to shave their beards. Uighurs are threatened even after death: In an attempt to eradicate our burial and funeral traditions, the Chinese government is building crematoriums.
As many as 3 million people, out of a population of about 11 million, may be imprisoned in concentration camps in Xinjiang, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The Chinese government claims that these facilities (there could be as many as 44 camps) are vocational training centers teaching courses such as tailoring, electronic assembly and the Chinese language. But the truth is these are nothing less than modern concentration camps, complete with armed guards, forced labor and barbed-wire fences. Inside, prisoners are indoctrinated with Communist Party propaganda, forced to renounce Islam, and have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol in violation of their religious beliefs.
Detainees are subject to rape and torture, according to testimonies of witnesses and those who have been released. Additionally, thousands of Uighur children have been separated from their families and sent away to state-run orphanages, where they are raised to forsake Uighur identity and be loyal Chinese Communist Party members. Uighur prisoners may also be dispersed throughout China as an attempt to hide the numbers of those in detention.
Eradicating Muslims’ cultural, religious identity
Whispers and secret messages laced with code words are the only communications I receive from back home. People are unable to speak freely, knowing they are subject to the Chinese police state. The streets are filled with cameras equipped with facial recognition, roadblocks and police checkpoints are around every corner, and GPS tracking devices are on every vehicle. Uighur homes are assigned QR Codes to monitor residents’ activities. The Chinese government admitted in the party’s newspaper to deploying more than a million government officials to live in Uighur homes as their supervisors.
The Uighur people are ethnically and culturally a Muslim, Turkic people. The territory they live in is of strategic importance for the Chinese government’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” which aims to improve regional cooperation. It is China’s access point to vital trade routes throughout Central Asian, European and African countries. It also sits on large deposits of oil and natural gas.
To eradicate the Uighurs and our cultural identity, and reshape the land to aid China in reaching its economic and political goals, Chinese officials have defamed Uighurs as terrorists and extremists. Under this pretext, in addition to building concentration camps, the government is attempting to ban all cultural expression and Sinicize Islam with communist ideologies. But to the millions of Uighurs facing communist China’s crimes against humanity, this is no longer about freedom of religion; it’s about survival.
Time is running out. The United States must immediately consider targeted sanctions on the high-level Chinese officials most responsible for the government’s policies under the provision of Global Magnitsky Act. Though the possibility of tariffs is still uncertain, America has not pushed the Uighurs’ case for fear of jeopardizing the ongoing trade talks with China. But the plight of the Uighurs must not be reduced to mere numbers, figures on a balance sheet.
Despite the horrendous atrocities the Uighurs are facing, including my own family, we are confronted by a muted world. Is an entire ethnic group and vulnerable religious minority to become collateral damage to short-term politics? Or will the United States take a stand for its highest ideals of human dignity and freedom?
Rushan Abbas is the founder and director of Campaign for Uyghurs. Follow her at @rushan614.
Rushan Abbas, a former broadcaster for RFA’s Uyghur Service and the director of the U.S.-based Campaign for Uighurs exile group, recently testified at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington about rights violations in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where authorities have held an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a network of political “re-education camps” since April 2017. During her testimony, Abbas detailed how authorities in the XUAR “abducted” her sister and aunt in September 2018 after she took part in panel exposing conditions at the camps, as part of what she said was a bid to silence her and stop her activism within the U.S.
She praised recent “strong words” coming from the Trump administration against China’s policies in the XUAR, but added that “at some point, words are not enough,” urging the U.S. government to hold Chinese officials and businesses accountable for their actions in the region with sanctions through the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. She recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service in an interview that Uyghurs in the U.S. must raise their voices to ensure Washington takes Beijing to task for its actions in the XUAR and demands the closure of the region’s camp network.
What we are asking for [from the U.S. government] is to punish Chinese officials who are responsible for what is happening in our homeland with the Global Magnitsky Act. This has been delayed for too long. The Trump administration … the Department of State and various other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Commerce, should enforce the Global Magnitsky Act—that is our strongest request.
What Uyghurs can do is speak out against China’s atrocities. For example, when my older sister was taken away, I stood up for her and starting speaking out five weeks after her detention on every possible occasion. Because of this, I drew the attention of journalists and the government. This is why I was invited to testify at the U.S. Senate.
The more Uyghurs—like me and others who have campaigned for their disappeared relatives—speak out, the more awareness they will raise about the Uyghur situation. Uyghurs who have American citizenship must do more. As citizens, we have the right to demand answers from our government and lawmakers. We must use our rights granted in the Constitution, and all Uyghur citizens should use these rights.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service.
More than a dozen ethnic Uyghurs living in exile have called on China to release video of family members held in political “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) after Chinese state media published what it said was a proof of life video of a Uyghur musician who was thought to have died in prison.
Over the weekend, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a rare statement of criticism against China by a majority Muslim nation, demanding that authorities close the camp network, where more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas are believed to have been held in the XUAR since April 2017.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the statement had been prompted, in part, by reports of the death in prison of prominent Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit, who had served two years of an eight-year jail sentence “for one of his songs.”
On Sunday, Chinese state media published a video online that purportedly shows Heyit alive, and in which the musician claims he is “in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating the national laws.”
The subject of the video goes on to say that he is “in good health and have never been abused,” although experts have said his body language and choice of words suggest he is being held under duress.
By Tuesday, the Uyghur exile community had launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #MeTooUyghur, calling on Chinese authorities to release video of their relatives who are missing within the XUAR and believed detained in the vast camp network.
“China, please immediately release a video of my sister Dr. Gulshan Abbas, who you abducted five months ago,” U.S.-based Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas said in a video she posted to Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday.
“I need to know if she is alive or not. Please release a video just like you did with Abdurehim Heyit.”
Adile Mijit, the Turkey-based daughter of prominent Uyghur comedian Adil Mijit, also posted a message on Twitter under the same hashtag, demanding information about her father, who is believed held in a re-education camp in the XUAR.
“Show me that my father is alive and well! Release my father immediately!” she wrote.
Halmurat Harri, a Uyghur activist based in Finland, posted a message as part of the campaign urging China to “show us their videos if they are alive,” referring to all missing Uyghurs in the XUAR.
Abbas, Mijit and Harri join at least a dozen other exiled Uyghurs around the world who posted similar requests on Tuesday under the same hashtag, holding up photos of their loved ones and calling for information on their health and well-being.
Responding to the social media campaign during a regular press briefing on Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that as a country of more than 1 billion people, “do we need to release a video of everyone?”
Hua slammed Turkey’s statement and said the video of Heyit showed that reports of his death amounted to an “absurd lie.”
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, on Tuesday welcomed the #MeTooUyghur social media campaign as a way of pressuring China to divulge information about those held in its arbitrary and extrajudicial detention system.
“Most Uyghurs in exile are not sure if their loved ones are alive or dead since China began arbitrarily detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs in [re-education] camps two years ago,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“I personally don’t know what happened to my father and other loved ones. We have learned of many deaths in the camps, including that of my mother. Therefore, I call on the Chinese government to reveal the whereabouts and the health conditions of all Uyghurs in the camps.”
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are “at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million” Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, recently called the situation in the XUAR “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
HONG KONG—Ethnic minority Uyghurs from the far-west Chinese city of Urumqi say authorities attach strict conditions when they release the bodies of Uyghurs who die in custody. Hundreds of Uyghurs were detained as part of a broad crackdown after deadly clashes a year ago.
Members of this Turkic, mostly Muslim ethnic minority, which has chafed for years under Beijing’s rule, are also often in extremely poor physical and mental condition when they are released, residents say.
One Uyghur youth, who fled to the Netherlands and asked not to be named, said his sister, in her early forties, was detained July 5 last year along with her daughter, “while she was just walking down the street.”
“On June 9, when I called home, I learned that they [authorities] brought my sister’s body home and told the family she died in jail. They returned her body without any explanation, just like that.”
“They released my niece … but the police sexually harassed her, and now this 16-year-old who was a very nice girl before is on the streets. She doesn’t come home,” he said in an interview.
When a Uyghur detainee dies in custody, he said, a relative is summoned to “sponsor” the body and bring it home—after signing a pledge that “no information will leak out regarding this death, and they take the body out. Otherwise no one could get the body out.”
“To get the remains, the families must have a sponsor who is a government worker in the family. The sponsor agrees to all terms and promises to keep it quiet.”
“If there is no government worker, then the government will take someone from the family and incarcerate that family member as a ‘hostage’ until all religious burial ceremonies and events are carried out quietly without any issues or questions. Only then do they release their ‘hostage.’”
Violence erupted last July, in which Chinese officials say 197 people died. The government says about 1,700 people were also injured in the 5 July unrest, with Han Chinese making up most of the victims.
The violence, China’s worst in decades, ended after troops were deployed, and security has remained tight ever since. Some 5,000 police officers have been recruited in the year since the clashes, and Urumqi’s police chief Wang Mingshan said officers have been staging drills to deal with any similar emergencies.
The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress says that at least 300 Uyghurs are thought to have fled China since the clashes, and hundreds more are said to have been detained.
Chinese media say at least 25 people, mostly Uyghurs, have been tried and sentenced to death for related crimes.
Authorities also said unclaimed bodies have been cremated, which Uyghurs consider sacrilege.
Asked if any Uyghurs detained after the the July 2009 clashes had been cremated, one official replied: “Yes, some, but not a lot … Probably because they have no one to claim the bodies and others helped to bring the bodies.”
Unwell when released
Another Uyghur man said authorities detained one of his relatives at work.
“His head was beaten up so badly—he’s not functioning normally now. He was supposed to receive free medical care in a psychiatric hospital. He was also being released with his older sister’s sponsorship. Those who are let go aren’t well when they get out.”
An ethnic affairs official in Urumqi, contacted by telephone, said every neighborhood affairs committee has appointed a task force to handle the remains of those who die in custody after they were detained over suspected links to the July 5, 2009 clashes.
Another Chinese official said police and Public Security Bureau officials are now authorized to conduct burials, after which families may hold Muslim funerals if they promise to avoid spreading news of the death.
One Uyghur man identified as Esetjan, 26, was detained on July 5, 2009, the day the clashes erupted.
On April 18, 2010, authorities turned over his body to his family, saying he had suffered a heart attack, one source said.
“Without any interrogation, without a charge, he was being kept there, and on April 18 they returned his body with a sponsor from the family signing the papers and agreeing to keep it quiet and accepting the conditions of not speaking out about his death,” the source said.
“The reason given to the family was that he had a heart attack. I attended his religious burial ceremony myself. If no one acts as a sponsor for the body, then the body is taken to the crematory, where it is burned.”
The man, who also declined to be identified, also said several men in his neighborhood had died within a week of being released from custody.
“They died one by one. These men [bore] no evidence of being beaten. There were no marks of any kind on their bodies. They walked like normal human beings but slowly, and they didn’t say much. If one was very outspoken and outgoing before, after being arrested and being released, they became very quiet, not saying much and speaking slowly,” he said.
Original reporting by Gülchehre Keyim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated from the Uyghur by Rushan Abbas. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.