Two ethnic Uyghur co-founders of a Pakistan-based rights group plan to sue the country’s Ministry of Interior for placing them under a travel ban last year, which they say was the result of pressure from Chinese authorities.
Brothers Omer and Akbar Khan, who launched the Omer Uyghur Trust four years ago in the northern Pakistan city of Rawalpindi, said they had applied to Pakistan’s Supreme Court and are awaiting a ruling on whether the lawsuit can proceed.
The Ministry of Interior responded with a statement to the court that the men had been involved in “anti-state” activities and had planned to “flee to the U.S.,” demanding that the case be thrown out and the petitioners punished.
Omer Khan denied the accusations in an interview with RFA on Thursday.
“It is very clear to the Ministry that we have not done anything against our country. If we had done so, we would not have been available to speak with you today,” he said.
“There is no doubt that China is behind all of these statements and the actions of the Ministry regarding us.”
Khan said that the brothers had been contacted by state security police who had offered to remove their names from Pakistan’s Exit Control List if they were willing to go to the Chinese embassy to “apologize for their actions against China.”
The brothers have said that Beijing has pushed Pakistani authorities to step up pressure on Uyghur exiles in the country, many of whom are vocal campaigners for independence for China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to the country’s largest population of Uyghurs.
“We truly regret seeing our country positioned as a vassal state [to China]. We hope and believe the Supreme Court will come to a fair conclusion at long last on our case,” Omer Khan said.
Banned from travel
According to the Ministry of Interior statement, the Khan Brothers have been on the Exit Control List since Feb. 19, 2011.
“At the time our names were added to the list, we were preparing to visit the U.S. to attend a hearing with the World Uyghur Congress held at the Capitol in Washington,” Khan said.
“The Chinese embassy was extremely angry and threatened us by sending messages via the Pakistani state security forces not to travel to the U.S.”
Omer Khan said that he and his brother had no knowledge of being added to the list at the time because their visa applications were turned down and they were unable to go.
“We only realized we were on the list when we tried to leave Pakistan for Turkey to attend a conference" on Xinjiang, he said, referring to the region as "East Turkestan."
On June 17 last year, the two men were blocked from boarding a flight to Istanbul, despite having obtained visas, received their boarding passes, and even checked their luggage.
The weeklong conference they planned to attend took the name “East Turkestan” from a short-lived Uyghur government that existed in a region taken over by communist China and renamed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the west of the country.
Later, Pakistani authorities asked the men to first gain clearance from the Chinese embassy in Islamabad before they could be allowed to travel out of the country, a move criticized by Uyghur groups.
On June 21, according to the brothers, they visited Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior to ask why they had been banned from international travel and were told that it was the result of a demand from the Chinese counsel at the Chinese embassy.
The brothers said that officials from the Ministry of Interior also accused them of constantly communicating with exiled U.S.-based Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer.
The officials also allegedly accused the brothers of creating “trouble” for them before acknowledging that they had acceded to the Chinese demand.
Relations with China
The flight ban marked the second time Pakistani authorities have been accused of intervening in the activities of the brothers and their organization on behalf of Beijing.
In April 2010, a Uyghur language school that the Khans had established in Rawalpindi only a year earlier was forced to shut down after Chinese embassy officials spoke with the Pakistani government and the school’s landlord.
The embassy staff accused school officials of maintaining ties with Rebiya Kadeer’s Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, an organization that Beijing says promotes Uyghur independence from China. The school has since remained closed.
Within the past 10 years Pakistan has deported at least 200 Uyghurs who fled persecution in China, Uyghur exile organizations say, while Uyghur activists with Pakistani citizenship have been banned from participating in any social or cultural events and more than 10 Uyghur activists in the country have “disappeared.”
According to Omer Khan, more than 3,000 Uyghur families live in Pakistan, predominantly in the cities of Rawalpindi, Karachi, Gilgit, and Islamabad.
Uyghur analyst Ilshat Hesen called Pakistan’s recent relationship with China “far beyond that of any other two countries, to the point where Pakistan seems to have lost its independence.”
“It’s better to call it the ‘Pakistan Urdu Autonomous Region of China’ than the ‘People's Republic of Pakistan.'”
China is looking to boost its presence in Southwest Asia, as the slaying of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden has prompted a faster departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and could lead to waning U.S. assistance to Pakistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani traveled to China in May last year where he met with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao to discuss enhanced economic and military cooperation between the two nations.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.