Updated at 02:30 p.m. EST on 2015-01-23
A Uyghur woman in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region who believes her child was sexually abused by human traffickers is seeking intervention from the United Nations after she says she was discriminated against by local officials who would not take on her case.
Nurungul Tohti, 35, said she has been hiding in Beijing while police from her hometown in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region search for her in the attempt to bring her back with them.
“Two years ago, my child was the victim of human trafficking committed by an illegal group. This past summer, I was also the victim of ‘human trafficking’ committed by Aksu officials. I am now facing a similar fate, so I am hiding in Beijing,” Tohti told RFA in a phone interview on Monday.
She said that on Dec. 24, authorities from Aksu prefecture in mid-western Xinjiang had visited her sister and said they wanted Tohti to return “so that they can help me.”
“They told her that seven police officers from Aksu had already headed to Beijing to meet with me and they asked that I cooperate with them,” she said.
“I won’t do it because I already cooperated with them in the past and ended up spending 39 days in jail because of it.”
Tohti said she had traveled to Beijing for the second time since June to appeal to relevant central departments about her son Abbas Tayir’s situation, to demonstrate in front of the United Nations office at the Chinese capital as well as to highlight her case to the foreign media.
Caught by traffickers
Tohti, originally from Uchturpan county in Aksu prefecture, said she was living in Dalian city in China’s northeastern Liaoning province in September 2009 when her seven-year-old son Tayir was taken by traffickers.
Her husband had died six years earlier and she was forced to leave her son in the care of a neighbor while she traveled to her hometown to deal with a family emergency.
“Just three days after I went to Uchturpan, I received a call from my neighbor in Dalian who said that my child had not returned home eight hours after the end of school,” she said.
“I immediately called the police in Dalian and reported the situation, but I never got called back. Finally, I personally took action to rescue my child.”
Tohti said that “Uyghur and Han Chinese mafia groups” in Dalian had earlier approached her several times, offering as much as 10,000 yuan (U.S. $1,580) a month if she gave her son to them. But she rejected the offers.
When she learned that her son was missing, she suspected that he was abducted by one of those who made the offers, whom she identified as Shan Ye. On contacting him, she discovered that he had indeed abducted Tayir.
“As he picked up the phone I said to him, ‘Let me speak with my child.’ He put his hand over the phone, which led me to believe that my assumption had been correct,” she said.
“When he got back on, I told him, ‘Release my child and send him to my home within two hours or I will bring the police to you.”
Four hours later, and some 24 hours after he had been reported missing, Tohti was informed by her neighbor that her son had returned home. The next day she flew back to Dalian.
But she said that when she met with Tayir, something about him had changed.
“When I saw him after being held for 24 hours, he had become so quiet and nervous about everything. He wouldn’t even tell me what he experienced during his time with Shan Ye,” she said.
Eventually, Tayir told her that he had been warned by his captors on his release not to say anything about what had happened to him or his mother would be killed.
“I took my child to the doctor who said that he was suffering from anxiety. He told me that my son’s recovery only required time and good care, but I didn’t trust him,” she said.
“Not all doctors are independent in this country and he also was likely considering the issue of [social] stability as the patient was a minority. My guess is that my son endured sexual abuse during the 24-hour period.”
Tohti instead sought help from municipal officials in Dalian, demanding that they charge Shan Ye with human trafficking and seeking compensation for her child’s ordeal. But the authorities said that they were unable to charge the suspect.
Believing that she was being discriminated against as a minority Uyghur in a largely Han Chinese city, Tohti traveled to Beijing in June to appeal to the central authorities about her son’s case.
She also joined other Uyghur petitioners who held a demonstration in front of the UN office in the hopes of convincing the international community to pressure China over ethnic discrimination. Later, she gave interviews to the foreign media, including RFA.
In July, after returning to Dalian, Tohti was captured by police from her hometown in Aksu who sought to repatriate her, but she escaped overnight while the police officers slept on the train she was being held on.
Two days later, she was recaptured and taken to Uchturpan, where she was immediately jailed.
Eventually, during her detention, Tohti learned that she was held for demonstrating in front of the UN office in Beijing. She was also told that she was suspected of representing the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur exile group Beijing says is behind outbreaks of ethnic violence in Xinjiang.
“On the 39th day of my detention, I was released under police surveillance after my sister signed a document which said I wouldn’t travel to Beijing again to petition. I succeeded in escaping from Uchturpan on my fourth attempt,” she said.
“I don’t have any hope for winning my case, even if I spend the next 10 years fighting … I believe that destiny will land me in jail sooner or later. I want to tell the world that I am not proud of being a Chinese citizen, which has never once benefitted my life.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect spelling of Nurungul Tohti's name as 'Nurgul.'