UPDATED at 3:51 P.M. ET on 2020-03-02
The Chinese Embassy in Turkey has contacted two Uyghurs living in the capital Istanbul to confirm that their relatives who went missing back home in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) were detained or imprisoned because of “separatist activities.”
The two young Uyghur men—Omer Hemdulla and Jewlan Shirmemet—received phone calls and other messages from the embassy in early February, they recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service. They said they were surprised by the communication because several earlier attempts to speak with diplomatic officials about their relatives had gone unanswered.
Both of them had given public testimony about their missing loved ones, saying they believed the family members had been detained in in the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas are believed to have been held since April 2017.
Hemdulla said he was first contacted by the embassy after he published a video testifying on behalf of his older brothers Rozi Hemdulla and Muhemmed Hemdulla, which he recorded in Arabic, English, and Turkish, and also issued a written testimony in six different languages.
“After that, someone got in touch with me to talk about my brothers,” he said, adding that the person had promised to call back with confirmation about what had happened to them, but never did.
“So I left him a message on [messaging platform] WhatsApp and said, ‘This is urgent, tell me what’s going on.’ He responded after that and said, ‘Your two older brothers are in prison and your family is refusing to talk to you.’”
Hemdulla said the embassy source did not disclose the “crimes” that his brothers had committed or provide documentation from their trials.
“I sent him a message asking why my family was refusing to talk to me, and he told me it was because I have been involved with anti-China organizations,” he said.
“I told him I had done no such thing, but he didn’t respond. He just disappeared after he said that.”
‘Trying to shut me up’
Hemdulla also played a recording of a conversation he later held with someone from the Chinese Embassy who confirmed the earlier information about his brothers.
“We spoke to officials back in China—they said that your two older brothers are in prison,” the embassy source says in the phone call.
“They’re trying to shut me up—that’s how I understand this,” he said.
“I’ve only come forward recently, after learning that my older brothers were put in prison. I wasn’t ever part of any activism before this, but the testimony I gave is having an impact in Arab countries and Turkey. The response has been good ... [The Chinese authorities are] very nervous about this and they’ve come looking for me twice already.”
Hemdulla called on China’s government to immediately release his brothers and allow him to speak with his family members, and asked that rights groups and the international community put pressure on Beijing to do so.
Shirmemet told RFA he was informed by staff from the Chinese Embassy who said he had contacted his family “per your request,” and determined that his father and younger brother had been held in an internment camp, as he suspected, but had since been released. The staffer also said his mother had been imprisoned for five years because “she seems to have aided terrorists,” without providing further details.
He played a recording of a phone conversation he had with the staffer, who can be heard telling him that “your brother and younger brother are fine—they’re out right now,” but that they “don’t want to speak with you … because they think you have some ideological problems.”
“We got this information from officials back in China,” the staffer says, adding that, “your parents know that you have been part of separatist organizations.”
According to Shirmemet, the embassy staffer told him that his separatist activities took place in “Turkey and Egypt,” but he responded that he had never been to Egypt, and had only spent time outside of China studying and conducting business.
Shirmemet dismissed the staffer’s suggestion that his family members did not want to talk to him.
“For a father to refuse to speak with the son he hasn’t spoken to in two years is totally abnormal,” he said.
“Or if my father really said [he didn’t want to talk to me], it’s possible that he said it only after someone from the government or the police threatened him or beat him or otherwise pressured him to.”
Shirmemet wondered about the state of his father and brother and suggested that the authorities might be preventing them from speaking to him because they are “scared about something,” or because his family members are in poor health or unsafe.
Attempts by RFA to contact China’s embassy in Istanbul to verify the authenticity of the communications with Hemdulla and Shirmemet went unanswered at the time of publishing.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps in the XUAR, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets indicate 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.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said that Hemdulla's mother had been imprisoned.