Chinese authorities have confirmed that the wife and mother of an Australian citizen of Uyghur ethnicity are being detained in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) after Canberra pressed Beijing on their whereabouts.
In an email dated April 1, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) told Almas Nizamidin that the Chinese Embassy in Canberra had responded to its inquiry about his wife Gulzeynep Abdureshit (in Chinese, Buzainafu Abudourexiti) and mother Zulpiye Jalalidin (Zuyipiya Jiala), who were taken into custody in the XUAR in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Citing authorities in the XUAR, the embassy said 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 and is currently under investigation, DFAT said.
Abdureshit’s arrest came slightly more than a year after she and Nizamidin were married in the XUAR capital Urumqi, and 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.
“We understand that the information provided by the Chinese embassy may be particularly distressing for you and your family,” DFAT’s email said.
“Chinese authorities advised that if you would like to get in touch with your wife, you could apply for a visit through local law enforcement agencies in line with Chinese law,” it added, though it advised travelers to the XUAR to “exercise a high degree of caution.”
“The security situation in this region is volatile. Increased security measures are in place and individuals of Uyghur descent are particularly affected,” it warned.
The information provided by the Chinese Embassy in Canberra confirmed what Nizamidin had learned about his wife after traveling to the XUAR to find out what had happened to her.
“After my wife was arrested, I went to China and spent three months there,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service earlier this week.
Nizamidin had heard his wife was being held in the seat of the XUAR’s Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, and met with authorities there, seeking additional details.
“I was told that she committed a crime, however they didn’t give me any information—instead they interrogated me about what I’d been doing during the 10 years I have been living abroad,” he said.
“I tried so hard, but I was unable to obtain any official documents [from them] … I [later] obtained documentation on my wife’s sentencing, including the date of her sentencing, after paying a lot of money [in bribes] to relevant people.”
He said that despite having six months remaining on his visa, authorities forced him to leave China soon after.
Nizamidin provided the documents he obtained to London-based rights group Amnesty International, which 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.
“Amnesty International published a report stating that my wife was innocent, the Chinese authorities must be held accountable for her arrest and sentencing, and if she had committed any crime, they must reveal the details,” Nizamidin told RFA.
“However, the Chinese government remained silent. After that, I spoke to the media seven or eight times, but the Chinese government still said nothing—one of their common strategies.”
In November the following year, Nizamidin’s mother, a former school teacher who had been living in the U.S., was arrested soon after returning to the XUAR to take care of her aging parents.
‘A small achievement’
While Nizamidin said he considers China’s confirmation of his wife’s sentencing and the arrest of his mother “a small achievement,” he is frustrated that nobody has provided him with evidence of the charges against them.
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.
“I believe [my wife was arrested] because she studied in Egypt,” he said, adding that “now they know my family background, they are even more determined not to release her.”
“They arrested my mother to take revenge on us—because my father is in America and I am living in Australia. They cannot [physically] do anything to us, so they took our loved ones to hurt us.”
Nizamidin said he also recently learned that his father-in-law and mother-in-law had been sentenced to prison in the XUAR, but knew little else about their situation, and had been cut off from communicating with his relatives in the region.
He expressed gratitude to the Australian government for intervening in his case, saying he believes the Chinese government’s rare acknowledgement of an arrest and sentencing came as the result “pressure” from Canberra and the international community.
When asked what he planned to do next, Nizamidin said he would apply to Chinese authorities to visit his wife, “but I am going to seek a safety guarantee from the Australian government before I travel.”
“[Despite the danger], it is my duty—whether for my mother or my wife,” he said. “It is something that I must do.”
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, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
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, earlier this month 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.
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 Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.