Uyghur woman charged with financing terrorism after transferring money to family in Australia

Mayila Yakufu, a Uyghur woman who lives in Ghulja City, was arrested and detained by Xinjiang government in 2019 for “financing overseas terrorism” after she helped her family in Australia to transfer her parents’ savings to their bank accounts abroad. Her sister argued that Yakufu is innocent and the only reason why she is detained is because of her Uyghur identity.

Marhaba Salay normally lives in Adelaide, Australia with her parents. She works six days a week and 12 hours a day, and when she is not working, she’s busy advocating for her sister, Mayila Yakufu, who has gone missing since April, 2019.

Yakufu lives in their family hometown Ghulja City. She is an insurance broker, a Mandarin teacher, and a mother of three children. In 2013, her sister and parents were planning to buy a house in Adelaide, so they asked Yakufu to help transfer her parents’ savings from Xinjiang to Australia.

However, since Bank of China set a limit to the amount of money that each individual can transfer to an overseas account, Yakufu asked her aunt and uncle to help transfer a total of $135,000 Australian dollars to her sister, her mother and her father’s bank accounts.

“Everything was normal after they transferred the money to us in 2013, but in 2018, the act of transferring money abroad suddenly became my sister’s crime,” said Salay. “My sister went missing in April, 2019 and we later learned that she was arrested by police in May 2019. She was charged with ‘financing terrorism overseas.”

Salay said the family lost contact with Yakufu and she believed that the only evidence that the Xinjiang government has about her sister’s “crime” was that she transferred her parents’ savings to them in Australia. In addition to her sister, her aunt and uncle were also charged under the same crimes. The only difference is that her sister is now reportedly detained at the Ghulja City detention center while her aunt and uncle were released on bail. They have been put under house arrest ever since.

A copy of the official notice detailing her family members crimes was shared with me. In the notice, it clearly stated that her sister, aunt and uncle were suspected of “assisting with terrorist activities and unlawful possession of extremist articles.”

The official notice clearly stated that the three of them were originally “providing financial support to terrorist crimes.” Salay said the Chinese Embassy in Canberra only told Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) that they would soon open a trial regarding her sister’s case and Yakufu has yet been given a prison sentence.

Liver damage in the re-education camp

Before Yakufu went missing in April 2019, she was detained in a re-education camp in Ghulja City for 10 months. After she was released in December 2018, Yakufu was diagnosed of liver damage. “My sister used to be very healthy before she was sent to the camp,” said Salay. “After she was released, she lost more than 10 kilograms.”

Yakufu called her sister in January 2019, and it was the first time since 2017 that Salay heard her sister’s voice. “I saw a number from China calling me,” said Salay. “I picked up the phone and it was my sister’s voice. I stopped for a second and my eyes were immediately filled with tears.”

“I haven’t heard her voice since 2017. The phone call lasted around 9 minutes, and everything we talked about was related to greetings. When I asked her how she was doing, she said she’s good. Then when I tried to ask her where she had been over the last ten months, she simply said that ‘we are fine, don’t worry. The Communist Party take very good care of us.’”

Salay said she had a feeling that her sister wasn’t calling from her own phone, and when she asked to speak to her kids, her sister stopped for a moment and claimed that she was outside. “ I felt like she was probably at a local police station and someone was overhearing the call,” Salay said.

Yakufu went missing again in April 2019, and Salay couldn’t obtain any information about her sister’s whereabouts this time. She tried to seek information about her sister’s status by asking DFAT to contact the Chinese embassy in Australia. “I wrote an e-mail to DFAT, and they received a response from the Chinese embassy in Canberra, saying my sister was arrested in May 2019 for financing terrorism,” Salay said.

“I won’t stop advocating for her”

Salay’s cousin Nyrola Elima lives in Sweden now, and while she can contact her parents through text or short video calls on WeChat, they always try to keep it brief as she wants to avoid getting her parents into trouble for contacting her.

“My mom was really afraid of keeping in touch with me, but I told her that I need to know that she is fine,” Elima said. “If she disappears without a trace like my cousin, I don’t know how I could find her and I have to be able to tell journalists when she disappears.”

As for Salay and her parents, it’s a painful process as they often imagine Yakufu could face life imprisonment or even a death sentence. Despite feeling hopeless about the prospect of securing her freedom, Salay said she knows that she can’t give up.

“f we don’t try, we will only have one definite result,” said Salay. “If we keep trying, maybe her situation will improve. My sister is innocent, and the Chinese government has no evidence to prove that she has financed terrorism abroad. Even if they have evidence, it is a fake one.”

“I believe they picked my sister only because she’s Uyghur. This is not her fault at all, and I just want to say that the whole world needs to know more about what the Chinese Communist Party is doing to the Uyghurs.”

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.