Beijing accused of using hostage policy against overseas Uyghur activists after Uyghur woman died in detention in Xinjiang
Over the last few weeks, several family members of overseas Uyghur activists have been given heavy sentences or have died in re-education camps in Xinjiang. While acknowledging the fact that their family members will have to suffer from their activism, these overseas activists said they have the moral obligation to keep speaking out for the Uyghurs.
“If I died and if I’m buried in a grave, may a bouquet of red wild roses mark my grave.” These are words in the last text that Mihray Erkin sent to her friends as she left Japan in August 2019 and it became the last words that she sent to the outside world after returning to China.
Over the last few weeks, several family members of prominent Uyghur activists abroad were given heavy sentences or confirmed dead in re-education camps in Xinjiang. Erkin is one of them.
She is the niece of prominent Uyghur linguist and activist Abduweli Ayup and has been studying and working in Japan since 2014. When she was returning to Xinjiang to visit her family in 2019, she was part of a research team at Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan.
Not long after she returned to China, she was arrested in February 2020. 9 months later, information indicated that she had died in a detention center in December 2020.
In a report published in May, Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur service confirmed that police in the town of Toqquzaq in Xinjiang’s Kashgar said Erkin had died in the Yanbulak Detention Center. She had reportedly been detained and interrogated for some time before her death.
According to a source, police reportedly gave Erkin’s body back to her family in December 2020 and they were forced to bury her under police surveillance. “They asked her family not to talk to anyone and they should tell anyone asking about Mihray that she died at home,” the source said.
Erkin’s uncle, Abduweli Ayup, said news about her death began to circulate among his friend circle in December 2020 but he refused to believe the information initially. He was forced to accept the truth until Radio Free Asia confirmed the authenticity of the information.
He believed it’s very likely that Erkin was targeted by a government-led operation called “eradicate the influence of Abduweli” and according to him, a total of 72 Uyghurs from Kashgar were arrested in the operation.
Apart from Erkin, several of Ayup’s family members were arrested by local police in Xinjiang in 2017. Last week, sources said his older brother and older sister had been sentenced to 14 years and 12 years in jail respectively. Radio Free Asia also confirmed the news.
The brother of World Uyghur Congress’ President sentenced to life imprisonment
Ayup’s family members in Xinjiang are not the only ones sentenced by the Xinjiang government. The World Uyghur Congress issued a statement on May 29, confirming that Dolkun Isa’s younger brother Hushtar Isa has been sentenced to life imprisonment by the local government in Xinjiang.
The information was revealed by Radio Free Asia on May 31, confirming the news through local police. “I am truly heartbroken to hear this news,” said Isa. “My brother is an innocent man. He was punished because of my activism and work as a human rights activist.”
Isa said his family’s experience isn’t unique, because the Chinese government has been persecuting Uyghur families over the last few years, especially the family members of overseas Uyghur activists. “Since I left China in 1994, my family has been continuously persecuted and pressured by Beijing,” he said. “The Chinese government uses hostage policies to pressure Uyghur activists into silence. In some ways, China is very successful at surveilling Uyghur activists’ activities, even when they are abroad.”
Isa said some police in Xinjiang would even contact Uyghur activists abroad directly and tell them to think about their family members in Xinjiang. “That’s why quite a lot of Uyghur activists do not dare to speak out,” he said. “I’m already prepared to pay the price, and I know if everyone chooses not to speak out, then Beijing will have more success in silencing us.”
“We can’t stop speaking out”
Ayup said since he went into exile in 2015, he has been collecting names and photos of Uyghurs who have died over the last few years through different channels. He tries to share the information with the international community, but he never thought that he will have to share the news about his niece’s death with the world.
“Previously, I’m speaking on behalf of the Uyghurs but this time I’m talking about my own experience,” he said. “My sister and older brother are still in Xinjiang and I’m worried about them. No one can guarantee whether they are still alive or not. No one can guarantee their living conditions and the sufferings that they have been through.”
When asked if he would consider stopping his activism after his family members in Xinjiang were all arrested and sentenced by the local government, Ayup said he has been receiving information from Uyghurs in Xinjiang over the last few years, and these Uyghurs were often taking huge risks to share the documents with him. Whenever they share the information with Ayup, they hope he can share the real situation in Xinjiang with the international community.
“An Uyghur told me in 2019 that ‘maybe I will die but I want to tell the world that our lives are ending there,’” he said. “That’s why I can’t keep this information a secret. How can I remain silent when people risk their lives to share the list with us and asked us to tell the world about it.”
Dolkun Isa said since Beijing doesn’t want the international community to pay attention to issues related to the Uyghurs, they try to persecute family members of overseas Uyghur activists in order to silence them. However, even though he thinks their overseas activism has caused their family members to pay the price, he still believes he and others abroad have the moral obligation to speak out for all the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“Even though a lot of us abroad have paid the price for our activism, freedom is not free,” he said. “I’m not just thinking about my family, because there are more than one million Uyghurs suffering in the camps in Xinjiang. Maybe my family members are suffering twice more than others due to my activism but millions of other Uyghurs are also suffering for being Uyghur.”
Isa points out that even though more governments and international organizations have come out to condemn China’s persecution of the Uyghurs over the last few months, he still thinks democratic countries need to turn those slogans into real actions. “Democratic countries should take concrete actions to condemn China’s persecution of the Uyghurs,” he said.
This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.