This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A young Uyghur doctor at a hospital in the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) who went missing in 2017 was detained in an internment camp that year, her overseas relatives have learned, but her current situation remains unknown.
Sayarra Nijat, a doctor who had worked at the Urumqi Friendship Hospital for three years following her graduation from medical school, was detained in May 2017. On Sept. 17 of that year, her parents, who live in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining)—the seat of Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture and the XUAR’s third largest city—received a notification that she was being held in the No. 3 Detention Center in Urumqi, relatives living abroad recently learned.
Information about the situation in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017, is notoriously difficult to get out of China, where all media are state controlled and produce only official narratives.
Authorities lock down communications into and out of the region as part of a bid to avoid international scrutiny of Beijing’s repressive policies there, and residents found to be in contact with relatives abroad are often detained.
Sayarra Nijat’s family members overseas, however, recently learned of the young doctor’s situation from her parents, who said they had made multiple visits to police stations in both Ghulja and Urumqi to search for answers about her detention but, as of last month, had been unable to determine her whereabouts and current condition.
Rahi Haji, one of Sayarra Nijat’s relatives who now lives in the U.S., told RFA’s Uyghur Service that her parents had been too afraid to share the news with family members living abroad.
“She disappeared on May 17, 2017 … They came in [to her home] and said they had something to talk about with her, and they took her away.”
“I have a female relative in Australia who heard the news and shared it with me … [Her parents] can’t just pick up the phone to get information about her. We don’t know anything about her case at this point.”
Haji said Sayarra Nijat’s parents were both detained shortly after her arrest but have since been released—her mother after several months and her father after a year and a half.
Sayarra’s older sister Nadira Nijat, who currently lives in Turkey, told RFA that their parents received the notice of her sister’s detention from the Urumqi Tengritagh (Tianshan) District Police Bureau four months after she went missing. The written notice reportedly stated that Sayarra had been “in possession of illegal materials related to terrorism and extremism,” and thus was being held on suspicion of criminal activity.
“And so, my parents took this paper notice and went to the work unit that had issued it to inquire [about my sister], but they were unable to get any response,” she said. “[The staffers] said, ‘We don’t know this person, this Sayarra Nijat. We don’t know.’ So, we haven’t been able to get any information from anywhere.”
Nadira noted that the families of detainees in the XUAR are in some cases able to see them, speak with them via video chat, or talk to them on the phone once a month.
“But my family hasn’t heard my sister’s voice for [almost] four years now,” she said.
Detention center for women
RFA made a series of calls to the Urumqi Friendship Hospital, as well as to relevant police stations and other offices, but was unable to confirm any of the information provided about Sayarra by her relatives.
A staffer at the hospital claimed no knowledge of an employee by the name of Sayarra Njiat. The staffer claimed that this particular matter was outside the scope of their work responsibility and rejected a request for further information from other divisions of the hospital.
A jailer from the Tengritagh District No. 3 Detention Center refused to answer questions about Sayarra’s case. The chief of the Urumqi Bureau of Police deferred inquiries to the Tengritagh Disctrict Police station, where an employee said he could not even discuss whether Sayarra was alive or not.
However, RFA spoke with an officer at a police station in Sayarra’s neighborhood in Urumqi who said the young woman was taken into custody by “national security” officers and is currently being held at a detention center in the southern part of Tengritagh district.
“National security put a black hood over her head and took her in,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said he had not heard of Sayarra receiving a sentence for any kind of crime, but acknowledged that his police station hadn’t received any updated information from the authorities who detained her.
“They haven’t checked in with us, and we haven’t checked in with them,” he said.
The officer said he had tried to find more information on Sayarra’s case, but only saw her name on a list that showed where she is being detained.
“She’s being held in a detention center for women, in Dawan,” he said.
When asked why her family had not been told of her current situation, the officer said he did not know.
“We can’t look into that,” he said. “We don’t have the power [to do that].”
RFA was unable to learn anything about Sayarra’s health. It was also not immediately clear if the Dawan Women’s Detention Center and Urumqi’s No. 3 Detention Center are located at the same site.
Reporting by RFA and other media outlets in recent years has found that while many Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps, others have been funneled into the region’s prison system, and others still have been placed in forced-labor schemes in factories and workshops. Some have reportedly been moved between multiple forms of detention.
Chinese officials have said the camps are centers for “vocational training,” but reporting by RFA and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination. Like Sayarra, many have professional careers and need no job training.
According to Sayarra’s family, authorities in Urumqi and Ghulja have instructed her parents to stay quiet about the case, using intimidation and threats in an attempt to stop them from telling the story to community members, as well as to the international community.
Nadira told RFA she had long stayed silent about her sister’s case in an attempt to protect their parents, but ultimately decided to come forward with the story because she sees that silence has done nothing to help.
“I thought about testifying, but my family, my parents back in the homeland, didn’t agree to it,” she said.
“They said it would be problematic, that it would cause trouble for them or for my sister. So, I didn’t have the courage to do it … [but] I’ve finally reached my limit with this silence. I’ve reached my limit and I’ve decided … to go public.”