Former Uyghur official called his family after being sentenced to life imprisonment

Subi Mamat Yuksel’s father was sentenced to life imprisonment in December, 2019 for charges related to bribery and buse of power to seek profits from others, according to China’s state-run media. He unexpectedly called the family on October 19, in a move that Yuksel thinks is the Chinese government’s attempt to stop her from advocating for her father. However, she vows to keep speaking up for him until he is reunited with her and her family members.

Like so many Uyghurs living abroad, the last time that Subi Mamat Yuksel talked to her dad was on March 27, 2017. He was scheduled to visit her in the United States a few weeks later. However, on the day that he was supposed to get on the flight, he was arrested.

“A few hours before the flight, he went out to get last-minute gifts for his grandchildren and he disappeared,” said Yuksel. “My mom called him countless times but he didn’t answer. We started to get worried because he never did this.”

A few hours later, two police showed up at her parents’ place in Xinjiang and they told her mom that her father had been arrested. They also confiscated her parents’ passports. “They told my mom not to go anywhere,” Yuksel said.

Yuksel’s father, Memet Abdula, was an elite in the Uyghur community. He worked in various government positions for decades, going from being the mayor of Korla City in Xinjiang to the director general of the Xinjiang Forestry Department.

“My father worked for the Chinese government for forty years and he showed so much value,” said Yuksel. “Due to his leadership and integrity, the Chinese government always chose him to work in government positions.”

According to Yuksel, her father last visited the United States in 2015 with her mother. At the time, Yuksel just gave birth to one of her sons. After her father, mother and sister came to help take care of her son, they went back to Xinjiang.

“After my father went back, I was still able to talk to him,” said Yuksel. “I always love share new things I’ve learned with him and he always encouraged me to read more books. He has so much patience so he would listen to my problems. That’s what I love about my father.”

Sentenced to life imprisonment

After her father was arrested, Yuksel and her family members were not able to get much information about her father’s situation. However, in December 2019, her family in Xinjiang received information from a lawyer that Abdula had been sentenced to life imprisonment under charges related to secession and “being two faced.”

“The Chinese government often accuse Uyghurs like my father for being two-faced or being separatists,” said Yuksel. “If they are in even higher positions like my father, they would be accused of abusing power to seek profit.”

Yuksel’s family came across several articles or government announcements that confirmed the charges against his father. One article published on the website of the Xinjiang Forestry Academy of Sciences mentioned that Abdula tried to “collude with the overseas opposition forces led by prominent Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer.” The article also wrote that Abdula’s case revealed that the Xinjiang government needs to “reveal all double-faced individuals and purify the team.”

Additionally, in a working report released by Xinjiang People’s Procuratorate in January 2019, they also mentioned how the Xinjiang government had severely punished “double-faced individuals” in the fight against secession, including the case of Memet Abdula.

Lastly, in a piece published by the state-run tabloid Global Times in June 2020, the spokesperson of the Xinjiang government, Eljan Anayt, said that Yuksel’s claim that her father was wrongfully imprisoned was “fabricated and aimed at misleading the international opinion.”

“In April 2017, the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Committee filed a case against Memet Abdula on suspicion of taking bribes,” wrote the Global Times. “Memet Abdula was suspected of crimes involving bribery and abuse of power to seek profits from others. His case was then transferred to the judicial authorities for further investigation.”

According to Yuksel, her uncle has also been arrested and detained and she believes her uncle was targeted because he was related to Yuksel’s father.

A surprised phone call from her father

Just as Yuksel’s family began to become desperate about the lack of information about his father’s case, her sister and mother received an unexpected phone call from her father on October 19. “My sister couldn’t recognize my father’s voice,” Yuksel said.

“When he said ‘this is your dad,’ my sister was so shocked. He said he was alright and asked my sister not to worry. The first word that came out from him during the conversation was ‘I’m alright, don’t worry.’”

Yuksel said her sister then began to update her father about the family’s recent developments, and he also asked about how every member of the family was doing. When her mom got on the phone with her father, Yuksel said all her mother could do was sobbing and apologizing for what he had to go through in the prison.

“My mom couldn’t speak and all she did was sobbing,” Yuksel said. “She said ‘I’m sorry you are going through this’ and my dad was sobbing too. Before my father hang up, my sister asked him where he was imprisoned, and my father said he was imprisoned at the Number 3 Jail in Urumqi, Xinjiang and his room number was 11.”

On October 21, Yuksel’s mother and sister tried to go visit her father at the prison. However, they were told that since her father just called her family a few days ago, they couldn’t visit him on that day. “They said my father just had a phone conversation with them and they said that should be enough for a while,” said Yuksel.

According to Yuksel, security guard at the prison asked her mother and sister to contact members of their community committee and they would try to arrange video calls between them and her father. However, Yuksel thinks that the government should do more to allow her to also hear her father’s voice.

“I was so shocked about what happened and at the same time that I’m happy that he’s alive,” said Yuksel. “However, this is not enough because I need to hear my father’s voice. I also need to see him with my own eyes. Otherwise, I still don’t trust what’s happening to his case.”

Previously, there have been several instances where the Chinese government released some high profile Uyghur detainees from prison following their family members’ consistent lobbying from abroad. These released family members often would appear in propagandic videos released by state-controlled media outlets in China and claimed that the information about their detention and unfair trials are all “fabricated.”

Yuksel said that she will never stop advocating for her father until he is freed from prison. “I need to see him free and be reunited with my mom and sister,” said Yuksel. “I also want to be able to see them in the U.S. I want them to be able to spend time with their grandchildren. I have to reach that point.”

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