Seven Uyghurs from China’s restive Xinjiang province who went missing after petitioning the central government last year over what they called unfair farm policies have been sent to reeducation camps, according to relatives of the men.
The seven were part of a larger group of 25 who had traveled to Beijing in November last year by train from Guma county in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Hoten prefecture.
They were detained after they attempted to hold a demonstration in Tiananmen Square, demanding a meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao to complain about a policy that required them to sell their produce to the local government in Xinjiang for below-market prices.
The father of one of the detainees, 46-year-old Sirajidin Eziz, said that since that time, the whereabouts of the seven men had been unknown.
It wasn’t until April that he and the other relatives received a notice from the Department of Reeducation of the 14th Division Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which governs their village of Karataghiz, that the men were being held in a detention center in Sachengzi in Xinjiang’s western Aksu prefecture.
“We only came to know his whereabouts exactly five months after he was taken by police,” Eziz’s father said.
The notice, which was read to RFA by Eziz’s son, said that the seven had been detained in the camp since Dec. 4 and were undergoing reeducation through labor because they had created "public disorder" by gathering illegally.
The group had been sentenced to terms of 16-24 months, the notice said, and included Nurabla Nurmemet, 43, Abla Ablikim, 34, Sirajidin Eziz, 45, Eli Hapiz, 43, Ahmet Osman, 51, Ablet Abdurehim, 41, and Omer Salih, 50.
“I’m 94 years old now. I don’t know whether or not I will see him again because he was given two years of reeducation through labor,” Eziz’s father said.
Eziz’s father said the men had never received a court hearing.
“I don’t understand how it can be crime when all you are trying to do is to meet with your prime minister to address your problem,” he said.
Ablet Kasim, a Uyghur from Guma county, said that farmers have been losing money for years and are willing to risk punishment to reverse the policy that forces them to sell their produce to state-owned buyers at prices 50-70 percent lower than those on the open market.
They had been forced to sell at a discount for produce such as red dates and cotton.
A brother of one of the detainees said that the local police chief, angered that the farmers had sought assistance from the central government, might have pushed to have the seven sent to the labor camp.
He said that the police chief had warned the 25 Uyghurs when they boarded the train to Beijing last year that they would be punished upon their return.
“’You can go if you want,’ the police chief told them, ‘but you had better know that when you finally come back, I will send you to jail in the first week of your return,’” the brother said.
“Well, he finally did what he said—he showed us his power … I’m surprised he hid this information from us for so long. Maybe he wanted to force us to beg him or he was trying to punish the families.”
The farmers originally numbered more than 100 when they first took their complaints to higher authorities in July 2010.
Up until their visit to Beijing, the group filed protests four times to division officials and three times to provincial officials in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
In an interview from Beijing last November, Abla Ablikim, one of the seven Uyghurs in the labor camp, said police from Karataghiz village had tried to block the group from boarding the train to the capital at the Urumqi train station in addition to threatening them with imprisonment upon their return.
Eventually, Abla Abilkim said, Uyghur merchants at the station protected the farmers from the police and allowed them to board the train.
Abla Abilikim said authorities at both the local and provincial levels told him they could do nothing to help the farmers because the XPCC has the right to implement a planned economy instead of a market economy.
“Some of them said, ‘The state is building roads, schools, and hospitals for you, so you must support the state companies,’” he said.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.