Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region have detained a Uyghur official after she “expressed sympathy” for fellow members of her ethnic group who were rounded up over the last year and placed in the region’s vast network of political “re-education camps,” according to sources.
Pezilet Bekri, in her 30s, was promoted from her position in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city’s Office of Religious Affairs to the Communist Party secretary of Kashgar’s Yarbagh Neighborhood Committee in 2015 after being commended for her diligent work, a source recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service in a letter, written anonymously.
The source said that despite her successful career, Bekri was forced to abandon her loyalty to the government after April 2017, when authorities under her administration began rounding up Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and displaying “politically incorrect” behavior and sending them to re-education camps.
After expressing sympathy for Uyghurs who were detained as part of the campaign, Han Chinese officials in her work group reported her to higher level authorities, who removed her from her post for “incompetence” and sent her to one of the camps she oversaw, according to the letter.
Staff members of multiple government offices in Kashgar confirmed that Bekri was promoted to Yarbagh Neighborhood Committee secretary in 2015, but said they were unaware of reports that she had been detained over her concerns with the Xinjiang’s re-education campaign.
But Tursun Mamut, a volunteer at the Kashgar Municipal National Security Agency and retired cadre from the Trade Bureau of Kashgar Prefecture, recently told RFA that he regularly communicated with Bekri on the WeChat messaging app until she suddenly went silent earlier this year.
“I was a good friend of Pezilet Bekri on WeChat, but she disappeared on Jan. 17,” he said.
“I later learned [from the National Security Agency] that she was taken to a political re-education center.”
Her disappearance was also confirmed by Abdurahman Hesen, a Uyghur businessman from Kashgar who is currently living in exile in Turkey.
“I think she was transferred to Yarbagh in 2015,” he said.
“Later the government combined two communes into one, and she was appointed as a political commander who was in charge of supervising others in carrying out the arrests and sending them to re-education camps.”
Hesen said that as a “political commander supervising those that carry out arrests” it was “very normal for her to show her sympathy towards the victims.”
“You don’t have to be a Uyghur to show sympathy to the weak and the vulnerable,” he said.
“Any human being with a sense of justice would be unable to hold back their emotions on seeing innocent elderly men and women having black hoods placed over their heads and being taken away, or hearing terrified children screaming as their parents or siblings are being forcibly detained.”
Hesen said visiting businessmen from Kashgar had told him at the end of January that Bekri was arrested by the Public Security Bureau and is being held in the city’s prison.
He said contacts inside Xinjiang had also confirmed her detention via WeChat and by telephone.
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of Xinjiang have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of Xinjiang residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.
In December last year, sources told RFA that rewards provided by authorities in Xinjiang to tipsters for outing would-be “terrorists” are also being offered to those reporting “two-faced” Uyghur officials and public figures suspected of “disloyalty” to Beijing.
“Two-faced” is a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty” that can include promotion of “extremist” sentiment, providing support to separatist groups, or publishing information that “harms the unity of the country” or “distorts the history of Xinjiang.”
While authorities have generally avoided harassing the families of Uyghur security personnel and public servants during past crackdowns in Xinjiang, reports suggest that even Uyghurs who serve the state risk arrest amid a string of harsh policies attacking the legitimate rights and freedoms of Uyghurs enacted since Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the region in August 2016.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.