Six Radio Free Asia Uyghur Service reporters have spent years in exile covering unreported news and documenting human rights abuses under heavy-handed Chinese rule in their homeland in northwestern China. Now, dozens of their family members residing in what China calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region unwillingly have become part of one of RFA’s biggest stories: They are inmates in the vast and growing constellation of political re-education camps, sharing the fate of as many as one million Uyghurs who are being held without due process for ill-defined reasons, under Beijing’s brutal campaign against what it calls religious extremism and separatism.
Gulchehra Hoja, the former host and creator of a children’s TV program on the history of Xinjiang, has reported for RFA’s Uyghur Service for 17 years.
Twenty-four of her family members in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and Ghulja (Yining) city, in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Region, have been detained.
Her brother Kaisar Abduqeyum was taken into custody by Chinese police from Urumqi’s Tengritagh (Tianshan) district in October 2017 and has not been heard from since.
But most were taken on Feb. 1, 2018 as part of simultaneous raids, including her 74-year-old mother, Qimangul Zikri, as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins. Zikri was released after nine days in a political re-education camp, where authorities kept her hands and feet continuously shackled together, due to medical complications. Her mother is required to take regular doses of medication, which she was not provided access to while in custody.
Those of her family members who remain missing, including an aunt in her 60s, are believed to be held either in detention or in re-education camps. Authorities have not provided any information about their situation.
Her 77-year-old father, Abduqeyum Hoja, a former an archaeology professor who is paralyzed on one side of his body, was placed under police surveillance in the hospital while her relatives went missing. He cannot care for himself.
Zikri has said authorities informed her that they knew Hoja was working for RFA’s Uyghur Service, adding that it was the reason they detained her brother.
Shohret Hoshur, originally from Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture’s Qorghas (Huocheng) county, has spent the last 10 years reporting for RFA’s Uyghur Service.
In August 2014, authorities jailed his brothers Shawket Hoshur, 57, Rexim Hoshur, 41, and Tudaxun Hoshur, 43. Tudaxun Hoshur was sentenced to five years in Qarabughra prison, in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture’s Kunes (Xinyuan) county, for “endangering state security.”
On Dec. 30, 2015, Shawket Hoshur and Rexim Hoshur were released from prison following protests from the U.S. government, but the two men were detained again in September 2017 and held at the “Loving Kindness School” re-education camp in Qorghas county.
Since then several other of his family members have been placed in Loving Kindness or one of three other camps located in the county’s Qingshuihe and Shuiding townships, including Tudaxun Hoshur's wife Saniye, 41; Rexim Hoshur’s wife Arzigul, 39; Shawket Hoshur’s sons Ilshat Shawket, 28, and Ilyar Shawket, 27; and Shohret Hoshur’s brother-in-law Tursun, 47. His sister Minewer Hoshur, 45, and Shawket Hoshur’s wife Rashide Rozi were recently notified that they should ready themselves for detention at any time.
Authorities from the Qorghas county justice department have informed Shohret Hoshur’s relatives that Shawket Hoshur and Rexim Hoshur were placed in re-education “because they were former detainees.” The reason given for taking others into custody is “because they are members of a blacklisted family,” and police have repeatedly urged them to ask Shohret Hoshur to stop calling inside China.
Mamatjan Juma, originally from Kashgar (Kashi), is a former teacher who now serves as deputy head of RFA’s Uyghur Service, where he has worked for 11 years.
In early 2010, his brother Abdukadir Juma, in his late 30s, began calling to convince him to return home, saying local authorities had offered him a good job and that the situation in Xinjiang had improved significantly for Uyghurs.
More recently, the phone calls became more agitated, and Abdukadir Juma said he would cut ties with him unless he returned—which Mamatjan Juma said his brother was likely coerced into doing.
In May 2017, authorities detained Abdukadir Juma and another brother, 40-year-old Ahmatjan Juma. Abdukadir Juma—who has worked in advertising and translation—is being held in Urumqi’s No. 1 Detention Center, while Ahmatjan Juma—the head of a middle school and a teacher of English-Chinese comparative literature—is believed held somewhere in Kashgar prefecture, where he lives. He suffers from a heart condition that requires medical care.
Mamatjan Juma’s father passed away in October 2017, and his mother is frequently hospitalized with health problems, but he has been unable to contact his family and fears that speaking with them will endanger them further.
Jilil Kashgary is a former history professor who taught in Urumqi and has been reporting for RFA’s Uyghur Service for 19 years.
In February 2017, Kashgary learned that four cousins in Ghulja were taken into custody: Seidiehmet Yunus, 40, Seidialim Yunus, in his mid-30s, Tursunmemet Yunus, 52, and Kerim Yunus, in his early 40s.
Seidiehmet Yunus had formerly spent 16 years in prison for taking part in protests against Chinese rule in Ghulja in 1997.
In March 2017, Kashgary’s 19-year-old nephew Nurmemet, who returned from two years of study abroad in Egypt in 2015, was taken into custody in Ghulja.
Kashgary’s 50-year-old sister-in-law, Asiya Yasin, disappeared from Ghulja in April 2017, and was recently confirmed to have been sent to a re-education camp.
His cousin’s two sons, Abduhamit Ablet and Abdurusul Ablet—both in their 20s—were detained in Ghulja sometime in 2017.
Authorities have repeatedly demanded information about Kashgary from his relatives, although they deny any knowledge about the work that he does.
Kurban Niyaz, originally from Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture’s Bugur (Luntai) county, has spent 10 years in the U.S., and the last three working as a reporter for RFA’s Uyghur Service.
His 45-year-old younger brother, Hasanjan Niyaz—the owner of a photocopy store—was arrested in May 2017 in Bugur county.
In July 2017, his family was called to attend a court hearing in which his brother was sentenced to six years in jail for “holding ethnic hatred.” Hasanjan Niyaz appeared gaunt and skeletal, family members said, most likely as a result of a poor and insufficient diet while in detention.
In late September 2017, Kurban Niyaz lost contact with his sister—who had sent him images via the WeChat messaging app of his brother’s arrest warrant and notice of sentencing—and he fears she has been placed in a re-education camp.
He learned during a call to family in September that his mother had passed away from a long-standing illness, but subsequent calls have not gone through. He has not spoken with his older sister since then and believes she will not take his phone calls because doing so would create problems for other family members.
Eset Sulaiman, originally from Kumul (Hami) prefecture, has been an RFA reporter since 2013.
In 2015, after Sulaiman made inquiries about authorities forcing Uyghurs to relocate their homes to make way for a Chinese mining corporation in Kumul, police repeatedly interrogated his older brother, Ehet Sulaiman, a school principal, and his mother, who was in her 70s and suffered from a long-standing medical condition. They denied knowledge of Sulaiman’s work.
His family members later called him to ask him what he was doing in the U.S., saying authorities had urged him to return and offered him a good job, but he refused to provide them with details and restricted contact in order to protect his relatives.
In July 2017, he completely lost contact with his family, and was only able to learn information about their situation through a relative who lives in Sweden.
In October 2017, his brother Ehet Sulaiman, and his mother-in-law Saadet Kichik and father-in-law Memteli Sopi—both pensioners who used to work for the prefectural government—were sent to re-education camps in Kumul.
He is no longer able to obtain any information about his younger brother or any of his other relatives. In February 2018, he learned from his Swedish relative that his mother had passed away after seeking treatment in Urumqi, but remains unable to contact anyone in the family.
“These detentions serve to...undermine some of the most effective reporting from within the XUAR, a region which is increasingly off limits to international reporters, members of civil society and diplomats.” – U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith, Chairman and Co-Chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China
“Trying to prevent journalists from doing their job by persecuting their families is not only cowardly but also violates both international law and the Chinese constitution.” – Cédric Alviani, head of the East Asia desk for Reporters Without Borders
“Punishing family members of journalists beyond the reach of the Chinese government is a cruel, if not barbaric, tactic.” – Steven Butler, The Committee to Protect Journalists
“Their reporting for the U.S. government-funded news organization has offered one of the only independent sources of information about the crackdown in the province.” – Simon Denyer, Washington Post
Additional NGO and advocacy groups have weighed in, including FREEDOM HOUSE and the WORLD UYGHUR CONGRESS. The following news publications have also reported on this issue: ASSOCIATED PRESS, NEW YORK TIMES, and WALL STREET JOURNAL.