Families of Uyghur political prisoners in northwestern China say their lives may be worse than those of their loved ones serving time in jail.
The families in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region complain they are constantly harassed by authorities, treated as outcasts by their communities, and reeling from financial problems.
Many of the political prisoners were the sole breadwinners of their households, and their absence has forced their family members to rely on handouts from fellow Uyghurs willing to risk political persecution for assisting them.
Among those financially stricken are Abdusemet and Meryembuwi, who live in Ili prefecture’s Nilqa county. Two of their four sons were jailed in April 2009. A third, who was wanted by police, fled the area and his whereabouts are unknown.
Qurbanjan Abdusemet, 26, was given a 10-year sentence after his sale of books and videos about Islam was linked by Chinese authorities to charges of separatism.
His younger brother, 24-year-old Abdugheni Abdusemet, was sentenced along with Qurbanjan, but was released after serving three years in prison because he suffered from mental problems that his mother Meryembuwi said are a result of abuse while incarcerated. He now lives with his parents, who care for him.
Meryembuwi said Qurbanjan’s youngest brother, 22-year-old Mikhat, was also wanted by authorities but fled the area and may be living in another country. When police could not locate Mikhat, they detained his father for 40 days.
“The government arrested [the elder] Abdusemet because they accused him of not providing a good education to his sons and they said that he helped Mikhat run away. They detained him for 40 days, and during that time he became sick because of abuse in jail,” she said.
“The government has blacklisted us because we are a religious family and because of our political beliefs … we cannot have relationships with other people as it would also give them a black mark.”
She said the couple is also suffering financially because they have not drawn a regular income since Abdusemet was laid off from his job as a bus mechanic 10 years ago.
“We only draw 1,500 yuan (U.S. $230) per month from our pension, but every month we must send money to support our son Qurbanjan in jail, which he uses for food,” she said.
“We also have to take care of the medical needs of Abdugheni because the government doesn’t provide us with insurance anymore [since we are blacklisted].”
Abdusemet said that their lives have become so difficult that they might as well be in prison.
“Right now we are living outside of jail, but I think that if we were living in jail, it would be better … If they arrest us, who cares,” he said, stressing that the plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang needs to be highlighted.
Reliance on charity
Siyitahun, 66, a resident of Tohoqiyuz village in Ili prefecture’s Gulja county, faces a near similar situation.
His son Merdan Siyitahun, 37, was arrested on April 14, 2008 and sentenced to life in prison at the same time as Qurbanjan.
Authorities said Merdan had committed “acts of separatism” by providing “illegal” religious education to Uyghur children.
“I spend what little money I draw on my son’s legal fees. His lawyer, who was assigned by the government, has taken the money, but has done nothing for him in return,” Siyitahun said.
He said Merdan’s family members and his wife and two children waiting for him at home are constantly harassed by the authorities.
“They rely on charity from the Uyghur community because they have no income, but if the government finds out, they will blacklist the people who are providing it to them.”
Many Uyghurs who are considered political dissidents are forced to rely on donations because they are essentially stripped of their rights to social services. Members of the Uyghur community helping them can land in trouble.
Death in jail
Family and friends of Ehmetjan Emet, a resident of Aruz village in Gulja county, say he was arrested on April 14, 2008 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for “separatism” on March 24, 2009.
In November 2010, Ehmetjan died in jail.
The cause of death was officially listed as a heart failure, but family and friends said he was healthy and did not suffer from any heart problems.
They believe he may have been murdered in prison, but despite their efforts to investigate the matter, prison officials refused to launch an inquiry and would not hand his body over to his relatives.
“When we were given permission to view the body, we saw bruising, as if he had been beaten. But officials said they would not entertain the possibility of another cause of death,” said Mewlan, a resident of Gulja and one of Ehmetjan’s close friends.
Ehmetjan’s brother, 38-year-old Erkin Emet, was arrested along with him in 2008 and also sentenced on March 24, 2009 to 10 years in prison for separatism.
“He is still in jail,” Mewlan said.
“He only has a mother and a younger brother left. They have no money and also cannot visit him in jail.”
Many Uyghurs, who twice enjoyed short-lived independence in the state of East Turkestan during the 1930s and 40s, are bitterly opposed to Beijing’s rule in Xinjiang.
Beijing blames Uyghur separatists for sporadic bombings and other violence in the Xinjiang region, and has promised to try to boost economic gains for ethnic minorities in the region.
Reported and translated by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.