Beijing forced an Uyghur Australian woman to break the silence after sentencing her husband to 25 years in jail

On April 1, an Uyghur Australian woman learned that her husband has been sentenced to 25 years in jail under the charge of separatism. She said he was arrested and detained by local police three times over the last four years simply because he lived in Turkey for one year. Eventually, he was given a heavy sentence.

April has been a very emotionally complicated month for Mehray Mezensof over the last four years, because she met her husband Mirzat Taher in April 2016. Over the last four years, her husband has been arrested and detained by police in Xinjiang three times and on April 1 2021, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison under the charge of separatism by a local court in Xinjiang’s Hami City.

Mezensof still remembers that her husband asked her to marry him one month after they began to talk to each other through WeChat. They got married in Urumqi in August 2016, and before they got married, Mezensof told her husband that she didn’t feel comfortable living anywhere else, so if they wanted the relationship to work, her husband would have to move to Australia.

They began to apply for his Australian visa in September 2016 and after eight months’ waiting, he got his visa in April 2017. However, that was when they began to hear about police in Xinjiang taking away large numbers of Uyghurs.

“We were starting to hear about people getting taken away and police just came and people disappeared in the middle of the night,” she recalled. “We got worried but at the same time, since the mass-internment just started happening so everyone was really confused. People that were taken were mostly young guys around my husband’s age.”

Mezensof and her husband booked a flight to leave Xinjiang on April 12 2017, but two days before they were leaving, the police came for her husband at night. “The police said they were on their way to come have a chat with my husband and they told him to wait for them in his home and don’t go anywhere,” she said.

“The police came and the first thing they asked my husband was ‘have you traveled overseas?’ They also asked him to give them his passport. After my husband said he was in Turkey for about a year, they didn’t ask him any questions and they were just like ‘you have to come back to the station with us and we have to continue the questioning there.’”

Her husband ended up staying at the police station for three days and he was transferred to a detention center in Urumqi. “At the time, it was when I started to hear about the re-education schools,” Mezensof said. “They were calling them a school back then and the police were telling me that there wasn’t a school in the district yet. The police said my husband was going to be detained in a detention center and he was going to be let go from there.”

Months later, her husband still hasn’t been released, and since his Australian visa was also canceled, Mezensof had to return to Australia and tried to get him another new visa. At the time, the international community didn’t know much about the mass-internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, so the Australian government kept asking Mezensof to provide relevant evidence.

Then in December 2017, Mezensof got the news that police would release her husband so she immediately returned to Xinjiang, hoping to be there when he was released. However, after waiting in Urumqi for more than a month, she was informed that Taher had been transferred to another re-education camp.

“After they transferred him, he was allowed a phone call every two to three weeks,” she said. “I received a phone call from him one day and he said ‘I’m at this school, I’m doing ok and don’t worry about me.’ He said he was still in Urumqi and it made me feel relieved. I heard about people being taken to other cities or being transferred to other parts of China.”

As the security and surveillance had increased in Xinjiang, Mezensof thought it was a risk for her to be there as a foreigner, so she decided to return to Australia. Eventually, Taher was released in May 2019, more than two years after his initial detention.

Repeated brainwashing and psychological torture

The couple was reunited in July 2019 in Xinjiang. Mezensof said Taher had lost a lot of weight and he looked really pale. Even after he was released, the police still called him all the time. They would even go to his house to check in on him. “He was constantly surveilled even though they told him his education had finished,” she said.

Taher only shared parts of his experience in the re-education camp, because he didn’t want Mezensof to suffer anymore. “They used to be told every day that they would never see their families again and if they think they would be able to leave the place, they would be kidding themselves because that would never happen,” she recalled. “If anyone misbehaved in their cells, said anything wrong or didn’t listen to the guards, they wouldn’t be given food the whole day.”

According to Mezensof, Taher was strung up to the door with a handcuff after he accidentally used Uyghur in the camp. Additionally, Taher also mentioned that detainees had to memorize speeches and they were asked to confess to their sins and say how they shouldn’t have done anything.

“He had to say stuff like ‘I should have realized that China was a great country and I shouldn’t have left in the first place. Why did I travel overseas? I’m so sorry for that,’” she said. “They would also be forced to praise the communist party and how much the party has done for the people. Every day it was the same thing over and over again. It was the constant brainwashing.”

Six months after they were reunited, Mezensof had to return to Australia after her visa wasn’t renewed. They kept in touch through WeChat until May 19 2020, when her husband stopped responding to her messages. She began to worry that he may have been arrested again. She later learned that Taher was taken away by police the previous night, claiming that they were going to conduct another investigation about his time in Turkey.

“We didn’t understand the purpose of this since, during his two-year detention, they already interrogated him and investigated him,” she said. “What they were telling us was that because Xinjiang was divided into different districts and each district had the police officials who looked over that district. They said it didn’t matter whether my husband was innocent in one district. The district police in this area needed to conduct their own investigation and to find out if he was innocent or guilty.”

After Taher was detained for more than three months, he was released for the second time in August 2020. Even though the police had not visited him again, Taher was worried that he might be taken away again. More than a month later, his nightmare fulfilled when police from Xinjiang’s Hami City came to his house and took him away. That was the last time that Mezensof heard from Taher.

“Silence is not an option”

Rayhan Asat, an Uyghur human rights lawyer in the US, understands Mezensof’s experience very well. Before she learned that her brother Ekpar Asat was sentenced to 15 years in jail for “inciting ethnic hatred” in January 2020, she avoided advocating for her brother for four years. “Silence is not an option and it never was and it never is,” said Asat. “Mehray waited for a few years to realize that her silence didn’t help improve her husband’s situation.”

Asat said China’s policies in Xinjiang have undergone some transformation over the last year. Comparing to the mass-internment of Uyghurs a few years ago, more and more Uyghurs are now receiving formal prison sentences for five, fifteen, and twenty years. However, the 25-year sentence is still shocking to Asat.

“These are trumped-up charges and that’s something that we really need to emphasize,” said Asat. “China is now scrambling to make its action legal and normalized it by assigning these lengthy sentences to people. We need to come up with a better term to differentiate the kind of prison camps and the regular prisons in China. I’m more in favor of giving it a proper name so we don’t let the Chinese government normalize what they have done to the Uyghurs.”

Over the last few weeks, international experts and human rights organizations have released several reports that determined that China’s policies in Xinjiang constitute crimes against humanity and genocide. However, the Chinese government strongly refuted those accusations, describing them as “extremely ridiculous.”

While the Chinese government tries hard to deny the accusations, Mezensof hopes the international community can understand that what’s been reported about in Xinjiang is true. “I’ve been suffering for the past four years and I’ve been silent because I’ve been hoping that if we were obedient to the Chinese government, in the end, it would have some benefit to his situation,” she said. “To everyone, this is just a story but I lived through it. I was there when all of this was happening. What reason would I have to lie about something at this scale?”

Mezensof also hopes the Australian government can help improve her husband’s situation, rather than choosing not to help her simply because her husband is not an Australian citizen. “It’s so easy for them to say he is not one of us so we can’ do anything,” she said. “However, that’s not fair because I’m one of them and he is my husband. If the Australian government doesn’t help me, who am I going to expect to help me?”

She also wants those who have suspected the authenticity of the testimonies from Xinjiang to know that it is not just one or two people coming out with testimonies. Rather, many Uyghurs have publicly talked about their personal or their family’s situation.

“I’ve been suffering for four years and this is the reality of my life,” she said. “I want everyone to know that this is true and this is happening. You can’t just brush it off and say it’s just one individual case.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.