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World Overseas Uyghurs struggle to locate relatives in Xinjiang prisons

02:55  22 september  2021
02:55  22 september  2021 Source:   reuters.com

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Prison officials told the parents Ekpar has been in solitary confinement since January 2019 for undisclosed reasons, she said. Ekpar was arrested within weeks of returning from the United States where he had undertaken the U.S. State Department sponsored International Visitor Leadership Some relatives say China’s public attempts to discredit Uyghur claims of rights abuses have become a key way to learn more about their relatives detained in Xinjiang . Officials have released dozens of videos this year including footage of jailed Uyghurs reciting pro-government statements and clips of

Many Uyghurs abroad are faced with the same gut-wrenching decision: do as instructed and stay silent, or risk speaking out to try to offer some protection to relatives , in the hope that if their names become well-known it will be more conspicuous if they disappear. The Chinese government says the "vocational training centers" in Xinjiang are part of a "poverty alleviation" scheme to help train poor rural workers to learn Chinese and find employment. In a Xinjiang government press conference in Urumqi on November 27, videos were shown of seven Uyghurs who had "graduated" from the camps.

By Cate Cadell

Chris Coons et al. sitting in front of a television: Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) listens as Rushan Abbas, Executive Director of Campaign for Uyghurs, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington © Reuters/LEAH MILLIS Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) listens as Rushan Abbas, Executive Director of Campaign for Uyghurs, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington

URUMQI, China (Reuters) - When Ziba Murat last saw her mother, retired Uyghur doctor Gulshan Abbas, at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport in 2016, she begged her not to return to Xinjiang, where reports were emerging about the detention of ethnic minorities.

"My heart started to beat so fast. I told her not to go," said Murat. "We had already started to hear about the camps being built, but she thought she was safe."

Shortly after returning home, Abbas told her daughter that her passport was confiscated, without providing details. Murat said their daily video calls became tense, and at times, Abbas would shake her head and cry for no apparent reason.

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She and her relatives , most of whom live in China’s western Xinjiang region, aren’t dissidents or extremists or well-known. But in a spreadsheet kept by local officials, her entire family's lives are recorded at length along with their jobs, their religious activity, their trustworthiness and their level of Like Mamattohti, many other Uyghurs have moved to Turkey over the years for work or to escape the political tensions back home. Ipargul Karakas has lost contact with her family in Xinjiang . In an interview at her home in Turkey, she told CNN her brother and sister were in prison , and during her

" Xinjiang - related issues are not human rights issues at all. They are in essence about countering violent terrorism, radicalization and separatism," he said. The Chinese government has not responded to CNN's detailed questions on any of the families mentioned in the article, or on the scale of the Worried for his safety, Mamutjan said he left Malaysia and moved to Australia. There was no word from his family for years -- Uyghurs in Xinjiang can be placed in detention for only minor perceived infractions, including for contacting relatives abroad, according to leaked records seen by CNN , and

"I feel so guilty, I think she was trying to send me messages," said Murat in a phone interview with Reuters.

Murat said she last spoke to her mother on September 10, 2018. The day after, Abbas stopped picking up her phone.

Abbas disappeared six days after her sister, Rushan Abbas, a high profile U.S-based Uyghur activist, spoke on a public panel at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, about the unfolding internment campaign in Xinjiang. Murat and Rushan Abbas believe the events are linked, which Reuters was unable to independently confirm.

Rights groups and U.N. experts estimate more than one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were interned in a network of camps since 2016. China described the camps as vocational training centres to combat religious extremism and says they were closed in late 2019.

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Arrests, trials and prison sentences have surged in Xinjiang , where Uighurs and Kazakhs also face re-education camps. A watchtower this spring at a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp on the outskirts of Hotan, in the Xinjiang region of China.Credit Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse The Chinese government has built a vast network of re-education camps and a pervasive system of surveillance to monitor and subdue millions from Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. Now China is also turning to an older, harsher method of control: filling prisons in Xinjiang .

In 2021, the standard Uyghur language textbooks used in Xinjiang since the early 2000s were outlawed and their authors and editors sentenced to death or life imprisonment on separatism charges. The textbooks had been created and approved by relevant government officials; however, according to the AP Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison in 2014. Amnesty International called his sentence unjustified and deplorable.[136] Rahile Dawut, a prominent Uyghur anthropologist who studied and preserved Islamic shrines, traditional songs, and folklore, was disappeared.[137].

Murat is one of eight Uyghur people who told Reuters they have spent years searching for information on relatives who were detained and have since been charged and imprisoned in Xinjiang.

At media conferences in Beijing this year, spokesmen for the Xinjiang government have repeatedly said China will help Uyghurs living abroad who are unable to contact their relatives, urging them to reach out to Chinese embassies and consulates for assistance.

Almost five years after the internment campaign began, relatives interviewed by Reuters say such requests have fallen on deaf ears. Reuters was unable to independently confirm all aspects of their accounts.

"If all we have to do is call the consulate then pick up the phone when we call,” said Murat. She shared with Reuters a copy of a letter she sent to the Chinese embassy in Washington on August 5, 2020, appealing for information on her mother’s whereabouts that she says went unanswered.

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The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in China’s northwest, is the only region in China with a majority Muslim population. Throughout 2020, reports of abuses in Xinjiang increased, making it harder for governments to deny or avoid. In June 2020, 50 UN special procedures—special rapporteurs, working groups, and other human rights experts—issued a searing indictment of China’s human rights record, including the Chinese government’s “collective repression” of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Leaked documents detail for the first time China's systematic brainwashing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in a network of high-security prison camps. The Chinese government has consistently claimed the camps in the far western Xinjiang region offer voluntary education and training. The investigation has found new evidence which undermines Beijing's claim that the detention camps, which have been built across Xinjiang in the past three years, are for voluntary re-education purposes to counter extremism. About a million people - mostly from the Muslim Uighur community - are thought to have

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

China denies it has hampered efforts by relatives to find information on detained relatives.

“Some of these Xinjiang natives abroad are bewitched or coerced … and deliberately made up lies about these so-called lost contacts,” Xinjiang government spokesman Zulhayat Ismayil told a media conference in Beijing in February.

China’s foreign ministry declined to comment on its policies on communicating with overseas relatives of people detained in China, and referred Reuters to Xinjiang authorities.

The Xinjiang government and its spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment.

China hasn't released figures on the number of those sentenced to prison for terrorism or crimes of inciting ethnic hatred - common charges linked to the anti-extremism campaign - since the campaign began in 2016, or the number of people detained in the camps.

Of the eight relatives of detained Uyghurs Reuters spoke to, six were based in the United States, all of whom said appeals to the Chinese embassy in Washington went unanswered.

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For five of the six detained people, relatives said they have received no official information at all on the location of their loved ones or the length of their prison terms.

There is no publicly available documentation on the trials or sentencing of any of the detained people on China's judicial websites, according to the relatives and Reuters' checks.

UNKNOWN WHEREABOUTS

Murat says the only official confirmation of her mother's arrest is a one-line statement made by a Chinese Foreign Ministry official at a 2020 media conference in Beijing, who said Abbas had been sentenced on crimes of terrorism and "disrupting social order".

Murat said they had earlier received credible information from a non-official source whom she declined to identify that Abbas had been sentenced to 20 years. China has not publicly confirmed the sentence length and China’s foreign ministry and the Xinjiang government did not respond to requests on the sentence length.

When Reuters visited the former family home still owned by her mother in Urumqi in May, the door was still sealed shut with police tape that bore the name of a police bureau in Artux, a region near the Kazakh border over 1,000 km (600 miles) from Urumqi.

"Report to the community office if you ever return," read a notice on the door.

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Reuters was unable to contact the police bureau in Artux or the community authority in charge of the building, and questions to the Xinjiang government and ministry of foreign affairs about the notice were not answered.

Rayhan Asat, whose brother Ekpar Asat was detained in 2016, said it took four years for her family to receive information from an official source confirming her brother was detained in Aksu, around 670 km (400 miles) from Urumqi.

“We did everything we could, reached every police station, every state organ to try and find out what happened," said U.S.-based Asat, whose parents still live in Urumqi.

“We were so confused. Why would he be in Aksu? ...I think it is a desire to further uproot people and break their spirit,” she said.

Rayhan Asat and her family only learned that Ekpar was sentenced to 15 years for “inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination” in January 2020 when Chinese officials responded to an enquiry from a U.S. senator, Asat said.

This year, for the first time, her parents were permitted three video calls between three and 10 minutes long with their son, calling from a Chinese police station, said Rayhan Asat. Prison officials told the parents Ekpar has been in solitary confinement since January 2019 for undisclosed reasons, she said.

Ekpar was arrested within weeks of returning from the United States where he had undertaken the U.S. State Department sponsored International Visitor Leadership program.

Rayhan Asat, a Harvard-trained lawyer, said multiple efforts to correspond with the Chinese embassy in Washington have been fruitless. In 2020, she sent a copy of an open letter appealing for Ekpar’s release, signed by 70 student organisations at Harvard University.

“They opened it, put it in a new FedEx package and sent it back to me,” she said. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Some relatives say China’s public attempts to discredit Uyghur claims https://www.reuters.com/world/china/under-pressure-over-xinjiang-china-takes-aim-overseas-uighurs-academics-2021-04-09 of rights abuses have become a key way to learn more about their relatives detained in Xinjiang.

Officials have released dozens of videos this year including footage of jailed Uyghurs reciting pro-government statements and clips of family members criticising their Uyghur relatives abroad or pleading with them to return to China.

Murat said seeing her mother in such a video would be painful, but still welcome.

"I’m sure I’d be heartbroken but at least she’s alive, then we’d have hope. At this point, I just want to know she’s alive."

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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