The relatives of an Uyghur man who went missing in the aftermath of ethnic violence in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region three years ago say they know he was taken into custody by police.
But the policeman they believe took him into detention has denied the man was ever in his custody and says he has no knowledge of his whereabouts, leaving the family without an explanation for what happened to him.
Tursunjan Toxti, 26, who ran a barbershop in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, was one of thousands of Uyghur men who disappeared in the weeks after the July 5, 2009 clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese that rocked the city in China’s worst ethnic violence in decades.
His family has not heard from him since neighbors saw him being taken away by police on July 31, 2009.
Neighbors told them they saw two police officers from the Karlighach Police Station named Nurdun and Ghoji come to the barbershop and take him into custody, his brother Kurbanjan Toxti told RFA.
“That day, a police car stopped a hundred meters away from our store. Nurdun and Ghoji entered the store and took my brother outside with four of his employees. They had them stand in a line in front of the store, and someone in the police car identified my brother to the police. Then they took my brother and left the other four,” Kurbanjan Toxti said.
“At least 10 people who work at neighboring stores witnessed the scene,” he said.
He believes his brother was taken into custody and brought to the Karlighach police station, but the family has not received any information about his whereabouts or detention since then.
‘Never seen him’
Kurbanjan Toxti said that when he was later summoned for questioning by the same police officers, Nurdun and Ghoji, one of them admitted to having had his brother in custody.
“Nurdun himself told me, while I was being interrogated about the case, that he had apprehended my brother and sent him to the detention center,” Kurbanjan Toxti said.
But, Nurdun, 28, who since then has been transferred along with Ghoji from the Karlighach police station to a public security team, denies ever having taken Tursunjan Toxti into custody.
“Actually I have never seen Tursunjan Toxti, and I don’t know who took him either,” Nurdun told RFA in an interview.
He confirmed that police had been investigating the barber, who was suspected of participating in the “illegal demonstration” on July 5, but had not been able to find him.
“Yes, we were searching for him, according to information provided by witnesses that he was shot at and injured on July 5th, which is why we believed he had taken part in the illegal demonstration that day,” Nurdun said.
“But we were not able to reach him, and then we took his brother in for questioning,” he said.
July 5On July 5, 2009 in downtown Urumqi, as many as 10,000 people gathered for a peaceful demonstration, sparked by attacks on Uyghur workers at a factory in Shaoguan in southern China, against government policies regarding the ethnic group.
But after clashes between demonstrators and police, protests escalated into days of ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
The government instituted a harsh crackdown, including a five-month, region-wide Internet blackout, and large-scale sweeps on Uyghur homes.
The exile World Uyghur Congress estimates some 10,000 Uyghurs, mostly men, were reported missing following the violence.
Most of those disappeared are believed to have been taken into custody in large-scale roundups, often with little or no notice or explanation given to their relatives.
On the evening of July 5, Tursunjan Toxti had been at his barbershop on Sanshihangzi street, near the center of the violence.
Before he went missing, he told his brother how he was shot by police who were pursuing an escaped demonstrator who was trying to hide in the shop.
“It was around 5:00 p.m. and the pedestrians had run into all the stores around while the police fired at the demonstrators,” Kurbanjan Tursun said.
“At least 20 people entered our shop, including elderly people and children. The police kicked down our glass door and ordered them not to go outside. My brother was inside the store at that time, and a bullet hit his leg as he went over to check the broken door.
The shot had grazed his leg, but like many Uyghurs he dared not go to the hospital for fear of being suspected of a crime and arrested, his brother said.
Instead, he treated his wound at a friend’s house nearby, and, since the streets were blocked and unsafe, spent the night there.
The friend was later summoned by police officers and interrogated by police at the Karlighach station.
“This is also a proof of my brother being detained in Karlighach Police Station, otherwise his friend would not have been asked about his relationship with my brother,” Kurbanjan Toxti said.
He added that he did not know whether or not his brother had participated in the initial demonstration.
Nurdun said that Kurbanjan Toxti’s claims that he had had Tursunjan Toxti “disappeared” amounted to defamation, and that Urumqi police had already investigated the case.
“I was asked by the municipal police department about this claim. I provided all the information about my involvement in Tursunjan Toxti’s case, and since then the department has not called me back again,” he said, implying the investigation had concluded.
He said the investigation had been requested by the city’s petitioning department, and that he had submitted his documents to Tursun Bexti, a police officer who died suddenly amid suspicious circumstances mid-May.
Tursun Bexti had been known for handling sensitive cases of Uyghur families looking for relatives who had gone missing in the aftermath of the 2009 violence, and his death followed a series of reports by RFA’s Uyghur service on the issue.
Despite Nurdun’s denial of police involvement in Tursunjan Toxti’s disappearance, his family remains unconvinced.
“Last time, just two to three weeks ago when I visited Ghoji in their [Ghoji’s and Nurdun’s] office, Ghoji told me Nurdun had interrogated my brother, that is why he may know where my brother is,” Kurbanjan Toxti said.
Tursunjan Toxti’s father, Toxti Barat, 68, said he did not know what happened to his son but believed he must be dead by now.
“I believe that my son has already been killed, either by torture in detention, or on the road while he was being transferred to another facility outside Urumqi,” he said, referring to rumors he had heard about the armed police killing groups of Uyghur detainees while moving them to other locations.
“They [the government] have enough power, they could kill 100 or 1,000 people easily,” he said. “I wonder why would they hesitate or be afraid to say they killed my son?”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.