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Uyghur businessman returned to China by Iran serving 15-year sentence

China flag. (Unsplash)
February 13, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

When Uyghur businessman Obulhashim Tursun decided to expand his business buying and selling spices, he set his sights on Iran.

Obulhashim, then 26, traveled to the theocratic republic in early 2018, but only got so far as the airport after he landed on March 7.

Security officials at Imam Khomeini International Airport, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the country’s capital Tehran, detained him and forcibly returned him to China after 20 days of interrogation, his brother Obulqasim Tursun, a Uyghur expatriate residing in Turkey, told Radio Free Asia.

While Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia often repatriate Muslim Uyghurs from Xinjiang back to China, there hasn’t been a documented instance of Iran deporting Uyghurs until now. 

Iranian authorities sent Obulhashim back to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region where he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for previous foreign travel to the United Arab Emirates, his brother and authorities in Xinjiang said.

“It was his first time visiting Iran,” Obulqasim said. “We spoke on the phone for the first half-hour after his arrival. However … he was unable to pass through customs.”

Authorities rejected Obulhashim’s visa in his Chinese passport, which stated he was visiting for business purposes, and they pulled him aside for questioning. He called Obulqasim and told him he was being held at the airport.

“After half an hour, he requested that I arrange a return ticket,” said Obulqasim. “I tried contacting him later, but he didn’t respond.”

Visit to the Iranian consulate

Obulqasim went to the Iranian consulate in Instanbul to try to get information on his brother. Officials there said the police were investigating Obulhashim, but gave no reason. 

After receiving no updates in the following weeks, Obulqasim returned to the consulate, where officials informed him of his brother’s repatriation to China.  

“When I revisited the consulate, they claimed he had voluntarily returned to China, either to Shanghai or Guangzhou,” Obulqasim said. “However, I had doubts.”

“I did request a written statement, but they only responded verbally,” he said, adding that Iranian authorities told him they would not have deported his brother had they known he was a Muslim.

The Iranian consulate in Istanbul did not respond to RFA’s requests for comment.

Obulhashim, now 32, hails from the town of Döngbagh in Kashgar prefecture’s Yarkand county. He owned a computer service center in Döngbagh for a couple of years, then worked as an accountant at a hospital for up to two years, his brother said. 

The high school graduate, who had mastered English, Arabic and Chinese, leveraged his linguistic proficiency through business ventures in Yarkand county and Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, as well as Dubai, Istanbul and Marrakesh. 

Obulhashim moved to Urumqi five or six months before he began traveling back and forth to Turkey from 2014 to 2016, Obulqasim said. He also had visited the United Arab Emirates on business.

In June 2014, authorities in Urumqi detained Obulhashim, who is married and has a six-year-old son, for about 15 days for “illegal religious activities,” Obulqasim said.

News of sentencing

Obulqasim said two years after his brother was returned to Xinjiang he heard informally from two acquaintances that Obulhashim was in a prison in Kashgar, though he could not obtain official confirmation of his detention or why he had been arrested. 

Relevant authorities in Yarkand county confirmed to RFA that Obulhashim had been sentenced to 15 years in prison along with a dozen others for traveling to politically sensitive Muslim countries, including Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

One official, who did not give his name, said information about the situation was classified, though he did not deny that Obulhashim had been returned from Iran. 

The director of the Dongbagh judicial station said he could not give out information about Obulhashim’s current situation, but they provided the contact information of a police officer who oversees Obulhashim’s family. 

That official said Obulhashim was serving a 15-year sentence for visiting sensitive countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

“He got his passport after the advertisements to get a passport [were issued], and he traveled in 2016,” he said.

In 2013, China encouraged citizens, including Uyghurs to obtain passports and travel abroad, but later seized the documents from Uyghurs and used their overseas trips as justification for detaining them in “re-education” camps. 

The officer also said he delivered the news about Obulhashim’s sentence to his family in mid-2020. But Obulqasim, who was not in contact with his relatives in Xinjiang because of authorities’ restrictions on communications, did not learn about it from them. 

The officer cited the verdict as saying that Obulhashim was among12 people who received sentences of 2.5 to 10 years for taking overseas trips. Another person named in the verdict was Abdukerim Omer, who was considered to have led the others in applying for passports to travel abroad – including to the United Arab Emirates – and was believed to have been in contact with Obulhashim while he was outside China.  

‘It was intentional’

Commenting on the matter, Mehmet Tohti, director of the Legal Committee at the World Uyghur Congress, accused Iran of violating international conventions and said his group would report the situation to relevant international organizations.

“Since 1956, Iran has been a member country of the convention on the prevention of racial genocide,” he told RFA. “Returning a member of a group targeted for genocide is a violation of international law.”

The United States, the United Nations and lawmakers in some Western countries have said that China’s harsh repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang amounts to genocide or crimes against humanity, though Beijing has denied the commission of human rights violations there.

Tohti said he believes Iran acted in accordance with an order from Chinese officials.

“It’s impossible they didn’t know he was a Muslim Uyghur,” he said, referring to Iranian authorities and Obulhashim. “They conduct many investigations, fill out numerous forms and gather information.”

“It was intentional.”