Interview: ‘They Detained Her Because She Had Studied Islam in a Foreign Country’

uyghur-muyesser-id-crop.jpg A photo of Muyesser's passport.
Photo courtesy of Sevirdin

Sevirdin, a Kazakh national, married an ethnic Uyghur Chinese national named Muyesser in 2007 after the two of them completed their studies at Al-Azhar Islamic University in Egypt’s capital Cairo. The couple moved to Kazakhstan shortly afterwards, started a family, and applied for Muyesser to obtain Kazakh citizenship. But despite paying more than 14,600,000 Kazakh tenge (U.S. $40,000) to various authorities over the span of nearly 10 years, the government refused to grant her Kazakh nationality. Muyesser returned to her hometown in Kizilsu Kirghiz (in Chinese, Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture’s Atush (Atushi)—a city in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)—in August 2016, after immigration officials in Kazakhstan told her to renew her passport and track down documentation from local authorities to complete her citizenship application. But after arriving in Atush, authorities seized her passport, and three months later she was sent to a political ‘re-education camp’—one of a network of facilities in the XUAR in which Chinese authorities began detaining Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017. Sevirdin recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service about his efforts to locate Muyesser and the difficulties he and his three children have faced since her arrest.

RFA: How long has it been since you lost contact with your wife?

Sevirdin: She went back to her homeland on Aug. 20, 2016, because she was asked to renew her passport by the Kazakh authorities, but the Chinese authorities took away her old passport and never issued a new one. Since the time she returned home, she was routinely questioned by police. Then, three months later, she was arrested and taken away.

We managed to keep in contact by phone for about two months. Then, one day she texted me saying that she would be moved to a different place. When I asked whether she was being moved to a prison, she replied, “Yes.” I lost contact with her for another two months. Then, she wrote to me on [the messaging app] WeChat from a hospital ... She informed me at the time that she had been taken to the hospital after she fainted in prison. That was the last contact we had.

Prior to her being transferred to prison, she wrote to me using WeChat to explain that she had been deemed a religious extremist because she studied at Al-Azhar University in Egypt. They detained her because she had studied Islam in a foreign country [that is blacklisted by the Chinese authorities for the perceived risk of Muslim extremism].

Since I lost contact with her, I wanted to go to China to try to find her, but in her last message she said … “Please don’t come to this country … otherwise our children will become orphans.” The second thing she said was, “Don’t look for me and don’t call my family. If anyone receives a call from abroad, the police will arrive within 20 minutes to harass them.”

Muyesser's children in Kazakhstan, in an undated photo. Credit: Sevirdin
Muyesser's children in Kazakhstan, in an undated photo. Credit: Sevirdin
RFA: Did you seek help from the Kazakh authorities?

Sevirdin: When she was here [in Kazakhstan], we asked for help [to get her citizenship], while presenting our three children, but they didn’t assist us. Therefore, I assumed Kazakh officials wouldn’t help me with this matter, and I’ve never approached them about it.

It has been nearly 10 years since we started a family. The authorities here requested 14 documents in order for her to become a Kazakh citizen, and some of the documents she had to obtain from the Chinese government.

She wrote to me on WeChat saying, “Don’t look for me. I told them that we are divorced. If I didn’t say that we were divorced, they would put my family under extreme pressure. I will contact you when I am out, and when the situation has calmed down.”

There is nothing I can do at the moment. The Chinese Embassy [in the Kazakh capital Astana] currently is not issuing anyone visas. Even if I went there, no one would listen to my complaints. I am the sole provider for my children now. I was the Imam at the local mosque for 10 years, but I had to stop my work.

RFA: How are you managing financially?

Sevirdin: It is difficult. My four- and five-year-olds attend kindergarten, and my eldest goes to school. But I can only work while they are in class.

If I were to call her family members from my number here in Kazakhstan, it would cause trouble for them, so I went to Qorghas (Huocheng) [county, across the border in the XUAR’s Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture] and used a Chinese number to call almost everyone [in her family], but I was only able to connect with my father-in-law.

We spoke for roughly three minutes. He said, “I am in very poor health. I haven’t spoken to your mother-in-law for more than six months, as she has also been taken [to a re-education camp] for ‘study.’” When I asked him about my brother-in-law, he said he was also taken for “study.”

His voice was trembling in fear. At the end of the call, he said, “Son, please don’t ask any more questions.” When I asked, “should I come to see you in Atush,” he replied, “Never come here.” He sounded terrified when he said that.

Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.