Two ethnic Uyghurs from Pakistan were prevented from leaving their country to attend a summit in Turkey following demands by China, one of the men said, in the latest example of Beijing’s influence over its neighboring governments.
Pakistani authorities have asked brothers Omer Khan and Akbar Khan to first gain clearance from the Chinese embassy in Islamabad before they could be allowed to travel out of the country, a move criticized by Uyghur groups.
The duo, who co-founded the Omer Uyghur Foundation three years ago in northern Pakistan’s Rawalpindi, said they were blocked from boarding a flight to Istanbul, where they planned to attend the East Turkestan Brothers’ Union Summit on June 17.
The weeklong conference took the name “East Turkestan” from a short-lived Uyghur government that existed in a region taken over by communist China and renamed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the west of the country.
Akbar Khan said in an interview that he and his brother had obtained visas, received their boarding passes, and had even checked in their luggage before they were approached by flight attendants and told they could not board.
“The flight attendants wouldn’t let us board. We asked why. They told us that our names were listed on the no-fly list,” he said.
“They said, ‘We don’t know the reason why. The list was handed over to us from above. We received an order from our superiors that you are not allowed to go abroad.’”
Banned from travel
Akbar Khan said that on June 21, he and his brother traveled to Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior to ask why they had been banned from international travel.
“They told us that they did this because of a demand from the Chinese counsel,” he said, referring to a diplomat at the Chinese embassy at the Pakistani capital.
According to Omer Khan, the two brothers have been under surveillance and were interrogated a number of times, but had no idea they had been placed on the no-fly list.
He said officials from the Ministry of Interior accused the brothers of constantly communicating with exiled Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer, and of “making trouble” for them.
The officials acknowledged they had acceded to the Chinese demand, according to the brothers.
They plan to fight the decision to place them on the no-fly list at the Pakistani Supreme Court and are preparing an appeal.
They said that they trusted Pakistan’s court system and believe they will get a fair judgment.
‘We’ll never bow’
Omerjan said the brothers returned to the Ministry of Interior on June 22 to discuss how they might be removed from the no-fly list.
“Officials at the Ministry of Interior said that we should go to the Chinese embassy [in Islamabad] and get a letter from them before they would take our names off the no-fly list,” he said.
Omer Khan said he and his brother asked why they should have to go to the Chinese embassy to get permission when they were Pakistani citizens who had been born and raised in the country.
“But the officials said, ‘We don’t care. Unless you go to the embassy and get a letter, whatever you do is useless. Even if you go to court, you cannot win. Until you get this permission, it’s better to forget about going abroad,’” he said.
“But we’ll never go to the Chinese Embassy and bow to them. We are not scared of them. We still plan to go to court and follow through with this until the end.”
Hidaytullah Oghuzkhan, the head of the Istanbul-based East Turkestan Education and Cooperation Association, which organized the Turkey summit, said he was distressed by Pakistan’s decision to bar the brothers from traveling freely.
“It is regretful that the Pakistani government is treating their own Muslim Uyghurs this way.”
Relations with China
The flight ban marks the second time Pakistani authorities have intervened in the activities of the brothers and their organization on behalf of Beijing.
In April 2010, a Uyghur language school that the brothers had established in Rawalpindi only a year earlier was forced to shut down after Chinese embassy officials spoke with the Pakistani government and the school’s landlord.
The embassy staff accused school officials of maintaining ties with Rebiya Kadeer’s Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, an organization that Beijing says promotes Uyghur independence from China. The school has since remained closed.
Pakistan is also known to have forcibly repatriated several Uyghurs to China who were wanted there on suspicion of “separatist activity.”
According to Omer Khan, more than 3,000 Uyghur families live in Pakistan, predominantly in the cities of Rawalpindi, Karachi, Gilgit, and Islamabad.
China is looking to boost its presence in Southwest Asia as the slaying of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden has prompted a faster departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and could lead to waning U.S. assistance to Pakistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani traveled to China in May where he met with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao to discuss enhanced economic and military cooperation between the two nations.
Reported by Adila for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.