An Australian citizen of Uyghur ethnicity whose wife and mother are being detained in internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) had a surprise telephone chat with his mother this month when he called his grandparents to extend Eid holiday greetings.
Almas Nizamidin’s wife Bulzeynep Abdureshit (in Chinese, Buzainafu Abudourexiti) and mother Zulpiye Jalalidin (Zuyipiya Jiala), were taken into custody in the XUAR in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
On August 12, Almas’s father, Juret Nizamidin, posted a message on his Facebook page, saying: “My two sons have had a telephone conversation with my wife, who has been in a camp.”
The U.S.-based Juret said his wife, Zulpiye, had been released from the camp for three days for Eid, the Muslim holiday and had spoken to her sons, Almas and Izmurat, on Eid day.
“On Eid day, I called my grandparents to give them my Eid greetings, and unexpectedly my mother answered the phone,” Almas told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“I was very surprised, at the same time I became very excited. I didn’t know what to say, because my mother had been taken inside (the camp) for over 20 months,” he told RFA by telephone from Australia.
“Despite my campaigning in the West for her release, the Chinese government didn’t take any notice and continued incarcerating her for the last 20 months. She was given three days to spend time at home for Eid,” he said.
Almas said he spoke euphemistically to his mother about the camps, using China’s description that the facilities are schools, asking her: “So, are you going back to school again?”
He quoted his mother as saying: “Yes, but there is only a short time left. It is a vocational training school, we are all studying hard, and we are all fine. Do not worry about me. I am doing well and in good health.”
“Darling don’t make too many calls, concentrate on your study, and do well in everything,” his mother said.
'I saw some hope'
Buzeynep Abdureshit was sentenced to 7 years in prison after returning from Egypt to the XUAR in 2017. Zulpiye Jalalidin was also arrested in January 2018, after having visited her son in the United States and returned in November 2017. Since their arrests, Almas and Juret have been campaigning for their release.
Almas was informed by the Australian embassy in April that Abdureshit was sentenced to seven years imprisonment and two years deprivation of political rights on June 5, 2017 for the crime of “assembling a crowd to disturb social order,” while Jalalidin was arrested on Nov. 6, 2018 on the same charges.
Abdureshit’s arrest came slightly more than a year after she and Nizamidin were married in the XUAR capital Urumqi, and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said it had been informed that a medical examination conducted before she was detained “showed that she was not pregnant.”
Abdureshit had been preparing documents to join her husband in Australia at the time of her arrest.
Almas told RFA recently that he had heard “no news about my wife at all,” but was encouraged to hear his mother’s voice.
“I felt my heart almost jumped out of my chest. From her voice, my mother sounded like a warrior. I had never expected to hear my mother’s voice in such a (positive) way,” he told RFA.
“Upon hearing her voice I regained confidence and hope,” added Almas.
“When I said, ‘mother, you are a good mum and you don’t need to study,’ she replied, ‘don’t say that, my son. Knowledge is never ending, we must study, and you should also study hard.’”
“In that way she gave us comfort, I was happy to hear that,” he said.
“I heard that most of the people in concentration camps are forced into hard labor, so I was very worried if my mother was also forced to participate in heavy labor work,” said Almas.
“But hearing her voice, I felt reassured and comforted. Hearing my mother’s voice made me feel I’d accomplished something after campaigning for her freedom for the last two years,” he said.
“I will not stop my campaign until my mother and my wife safely arrive in Australia. After speaking to my mother, I saw some hope,” added Almas.
As part of his tireless campaign to find his wife, Almas Nizamidin provided the documents he obtained to London-based rights group Amnesty International.
Amnesty issued a statement on Sept. 28, 2017 saying that Abdureshit’s arrest and subsequent sentencing was believed to be “part of a wider crackdown on Uyghur students who studied abroad,” noting she had spent two years in Egypt as a student before returning to the XUAR in 2015.
“Held incommunicado, she is at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” Amnesty said at the time.
But he said they were likely targeted because Abdureshit attended university in Egypt, while he and his father, who resides in the U.S., live and work abroad.
Beginning in April 2017, authorities have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” in a network of political re-education camps in the XUAR.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, China has shifted to trying to deflect international criticism by describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department's human rights and democracy bureau, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, said in March that people "haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s" and called the internment of more than a million Uyghurs "one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today."
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Reported by Gulchehre Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.