More than a dozen ethnic Uyghurs living in exile have called on China to release video of family members held in political “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) after Chinese state media published what it said was a proof of life video of a Uyghur musician who was thought to have died in prison.
Over the weekend, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a rare statement of criticism against China by a majority Muslim nation, demanding that authorities close the camp network, where more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas are believed to have been held in the XUAR since April 2017.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the statement had been prompted, in part, by reports of the death in prison of prominent Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit, who had served two years of an eight-year jail sentence “for one of his songs.”
On Sunday, Chinese state media published a video online that purportedly shows Heyit alive, and in which the musician claims he is “in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating the national laws.”
The subject of the video goes on to say that he is “in good health and have never been abused,” although experts have said his body language and choice of words suggest he is being held under duress.
By Tuesday, the Uyghur exile community had launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #MeTooUyghur, calling on Chinese authorities to release video of their relatives who are missing within the XUAR and believed detained in the vast camp network.
“China, please immediately release a video of my sister Dr. Gulshan Abbas, who you abducted five months ago,” U.S.-based Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas said in a video she posted to Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday.
“I need to know if she is alive or not. Please release a video just like you did with Abdurehim Heyit.”
Adile Mijit, the Turkey-based daughter of prominent Uyghur comedian Adil Mijit, also posted a message on Twitter under the same hashtag, demanding information about her father, who is believed held in a re-education camp in the XUAR.
“Show me that my father is alive and well! Release my father immediately!” she wrote.
Halmurat Harri, a Uyghur activist based in Finland, posted a message as part of the campaign urging China to “show us their videos if they are alive,” referring to all missing Uyghurs in the XUAR.
Abbas, Mijit and Harri join at least a dozen other exiled Uyghurs around the world who posted similar requests on Tuesday under the same hashtag, holding up photos of their loved ones and calling for information on their health and well-being.
Responding to the social media campaign during a regular press briefing on Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that as a country of more than 1 billion people, “do we need to release a video of everyone?”
Hua slammed Turkey’s statement and said the video of Heyit showed that reports of his death amounted to an “absurd lie.”
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.
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, on Tuesday welcomed the #MeTooUyghur social media campaign as a way of pressuring China to divulge information about those held in its arbitrary and extrajudicial detention system.
“Most Uyghurs in exile are not sure if their loved ones are alive or dead since China began arbitrarily detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs in [re-education] camps two years ago,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“I personally don’t know what happened to my father and other loved ones. We have learned of many deaths in the camps, including that of my mother. Therefore, I call on the Chinese government to reveal the whereabouts and the health conditions of all Uyghurs in the camps.”
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
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.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, recently called the situation in the XUAR "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.