This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have imprisoned the family members of two Uyghur women living in exile for their travels abroad and overseas connections, according to the women.
Asat Abdukerim and his younger brother Anwar Abdukerim, of Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture’s Qorghas (Huocheng) county, were detained in 2017 for their respective travels to Turkey and the Netherlands, Asat’s Turkey-based daughter, Dilbar Asat, and his sister, Canada-based Marhaba Abdukerim, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
The two men were swept up as part of a campaign that has seen regional authorities detain up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since April of that year, the two women said.
The two brothers were later sentenced to prison terms, while several members of their extended family have also been targeted by authorities, simply for having ties to Dilbar and Marhaba, they told RFA.
Dilbar told RFA that her mother, Hajar Habibulla stayed with her in Turkey—home to more than 50,000 Uyghurs who fled there to escape persecution in China—for 14 months beginning in March 2015 to help take care of her two-year-old twins while she studied at university.
“She was fine for a period [after returning to the XUAR], and nothing happened … [but then] the police detained her and gave the excuse that she had communicated with [people abroad in April 2017] and that she had spent a long time in Turkey,” she said.
Dilbar said she received a message from her older brother about her mother’s detention in Qorghas’ Suydung (Shuiding) townshipvia the messaging app WeChat on the same day her mother was taken into custody.
“My brother said they would keep her detained and then take her to ‘study,’ to a ‘school,’ a little while later,” she said.
“That day, my brother left me voice messages reminding me that he’d recommended she not stay a long time in Turkey, saying that I hadn’t agreed with him and kept her with me for too long … Those were his last messages to me. He hasn’t been in touch since. Our communication has been cut off.
Dilbar said that her father, Asat Abdukerim, came to visit her in Turkey in June 2016 to see her graduate, while her younger brother, Saypidin Asat, had visited her for around 20 days in February of that year.
“I heard that between June and September 2018, they detained them—it must have been around the time of Ramadan,” she said.
“I heard [from sources in Europe] in mid-to-late June 2020 that they locked up my father, my younger brother, and my mother for five years each.”
Dilbar said that everyone in her family deleted her contact information from WeChat after she spoke with her brother about her mother’s detention in 2017, but authorities detained her father and brother regardless.
No political leanings
Marhaba Abdukerim, Asat Abdukerim’s sister, said her other brother, Anwar, stayed with his daughter while she was studying in the Netherlands between 2011 and 2015, adding that he did not participate in any political activities with the estimated 1,500-strong Uyghur community while he was in the country.
After returning to Qorghas in 2015, his passport was confiscated by local police and he was subjected to interrogation on a number of occasions, she said, before authorities detained him in September 2017.
Anwar was first sent to a camp and later handed a 10-year prison sentence, while his wife Gulnur Tursun, who never owned a passport or traveled outside of China, was also detained in a camp before being sentenced to four years in prison.
“The last contact I had with them was in [September] 2017, when my second oldest brother passed away,” Marhaba said.
“According to what I’ve heard from others, they detained Anwar Abdukerim on the day our brother died and not long after, they detained Asat,” she said.
“The reasons for their detentions were, in Asat Abdukerim’s case, that he had been to Turkey and spent one month there. He had committed no other ‘crime.’ He doesn’t even understand politics. The poor man was just an average farmer.”
Anwar, meanwhile, was detained because “he’d taken his daughter to the Netherlands and helped her get her settled in,” Marhaba said.
“When I went [to Xinjiang] in 2016, I saw him, and he told me about everything he’d been through,” she said.
“He told me they’d taken his passport, detained him, made it so that he couldn’t leave the country, that they wouldn’t agree to give the passport back to him, that they were regularly bringing him in for questioning.”
An acquaintance told her in June this year that Anwar had been sentenced, she said.
According to Marhaba, Asat’s son Saypidin also held no political convictions but was detained nonetheless after having spent time in Turkey.
“Apparently, they asked him why he’d stayed a long time in Turkey, why he went there—his crime was having gone to Turkey,” she said.
“[The three] committed no crimes, they did nothing against the government—we’re talking about people who don’t even understand the government,” she said.
Attempts by RFA to reach Chinese officials to confirm the claims by Dilbar and Marhaba went unanswered at the time of publishing.
Travel and ties abroad
Turkey is among several countries blacklisted by authorities for travel by Uyghurs because of a perceived threat of religious extremism, while the Uyghur community in Netherlands is particularly active in campaigning against rights abuses in the XUAR.
As earlier reporting by RFA and other outlets has shown, Uyghurs who have traveled abroad were some of the earliest targets of the Chinese authorities’ internment drive in Xinjiang in late 2016 and early 2017, while those who maintain ties overseas have also been regularly detained.
Beijing describes its three-year-old network of camps as voluntary “vocational centers,” but reporting by RFA and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
Amid international condemnation and U.S. sanctions, experts believe that China has begun sentencing Uyghurs held in internment camps to prison, providing legal cover to the detentions.