Authorities in China’s restive Xinjiang region detained and harassed several families of missing Uyghurs during the visit of a Turkish opposition leader last week, according to local sources.
Security measures put in place during the Jan. 17-18 visit by Kemal Kılıcdaroglu to the Xinjiang capital Urumqi specifically targeted the families of those who had been disappeared in the aftermath of deadly ethnic violence between Han Chinese and Uyghurs on July 5, 2009, the sources said.
The measures, they said, were intended to prevent the families from highlighting the plight of their missing loved ones to the visiting politician or journalists or officials accompanying him.
One widow was taken by officials for a long ride outside the city apparently to help her retrieve some savings from a bank while other families were held under police detention or confined to their homes.
Widow Patigul Ghulam, whose son Imammemet Eli, 25, was taken by police on July 14, 2009, said that families like hers had been bullied, insulted and humiliated by authorities during the visit by Kılıcdaroglu, whose country is home to a substantial Uyghur population.
“On the morning of Jan. 17, I was taken from my home by the police chief and an official who said they would help me to retrieve my money from the bank,” she told RFA’s Uyghur Service, referring to the 5,000 yuan (U.S. $800) that her son had earlier stored in a bank account for a family emergency.
Patigul Ghulham said that she had been unable to withdraw the money after her son went missing because she had forgotten the account PIN number. She had requested help from the authorities several times before but had received no response.
She said Bahuliang Police Station chief Abduweli and neighborhood ruling Chinese Communist Party chief Ruqiye drove her outside Urumqi, claiming that the bank which had agreed to allow her to withdraw the funds was located “far away.”
When Patigul Ghulham became suspicious and called her home, her 19-year-old daughter Mihrigul Eli told her that authorities had encircled the family’s apartment building, located in the Dabaza district of Urumqi, with more than a dozen police cars.
Mihrigul Eli, 23, tried to go shopping but police pushed her back into the building’s yard.
When Patigul Ghulham demanded to be returned home, threatening to “break the car windows if I have to,” Abduweli and Ruqiye took her to her apartment building where she could see that her children had reentered their home, but would not allow her to see them, instead taking her to the police station.
Several family members of Uyghurs who had been disappeared by the authorities were at the station when she arrived, Patigul Ghulham said. They were begging for the release of their relatives who they believe were being held by the police.
“I was released along with the other detainees at midnight,” she said, identifying among them as Tuqiz, Aypasha and Meremnisa—the wives of Muhter Mehet, Zakir Memet and Memtimin Yasin, “all of whom had disappeared after July 5, 2009.”
“The three mothers had been detained with their seven children, aged from 3-15 years old.”
Patigul Ghulham said the group asked the police officers what they had done to be detained and the police said they did not know, only that they had “acted according to orders.”
But she said that the harassment did not end there.
“The next day, Jan. 18, the police knocked on my door at 6:00 a.m. and four officers entered, saying they had been tasked with watching my family for the day,” she said.
“When I asked why, the police said that they did not know, but the previous evening I saw on the evening news that Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kılıcdaroglu had visited Beijing and was visiting Urumqi that day.”
She asked the officers if they were trying to prevent her from meeting with the politician.
“They said, ‘If you already know the answer, don’t ask us about it.’”
Patigul Ghulham said that the four officers remained in the apartment for the entire day with additional police stationed outside the building, preventing her children from going to work.
She said that shortly after Kılıcdaroglu left the airport in Urumqi, her family was permitted to leave their apartment and the surveillance was ended.
Patigul Ghulham, a prominent Uyghur petitioner, was also subjected to detention and police harassment during a visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Urumqi last year.
Following his visit, she published an open letter on RFA’s website in Uyghur, pleading with the prime minister to help her learn whether her son was alive or dead and informing him of the similar situation that she said more than 100 Uyghur families in Xinjiang also faced with regard to missing loved ones.
Patigul Ghulham also wrote an open letter to Kılıcdaroglu last week, urging the opposition leader not to believe the “lies” that the Chinese government had told him during his visit about its policies in Xinjiang.
“Don’t believe anything. They were lying to you. The Chinese government has taken away all of the human rights of the Uyghurs and are trying to eradicate the Uyghurs from this world,” she told RFA, relating the letter she had written.
“They want our land, not our people. What my family has experienced over the past three years is only one example of such intent.”
Kemal Kılıcdaroglu began his trip to China on Jan. 12 and concluded it with a visit to the Xinjiang region from Jan. 17-18 and a speech at Xinjiang University.
When contacted by RFA’s Uyghur Service about Kılıcdaroglu’s visit, Urumqi Deputy Chief of Police Ablet acknowledged that the city had tightened security during the opposition leader’s visit, but refused to provide details.
After speaking with Patigul Ghulham about her ordeal, RFA’s Uyghur Service was able to contact three other Uyghur families who reported similar harassment by city authorities during Kılıcdaroglu’s visit.
Aypasha, one of the women who were detained along with their children at the police station, said the group had made an appointment 10 days earlier to meet with the petitioner’s office on Jan. 17 about their missing family members.
“[The police] started to push us as we approached the station. One officer kicked me in the back and pushed me into the police car. Another one threw my 7-year-old daughter into the car,” she said.
“We three mothers and seven children were loaded into the car by force like animals. They took us to Bahuliang Police Station and detained us in an underground room used for interrogations until midnight.”
All of the women and children were injured during the incident, Aypasha said, but none of them received any medical attention from the authorities.
The fathers of two other Uyghurs who had disappeared following the 2009 Urumqi violence told RFA’s Uyghur Service that their families had also been prevented from leaving their homes during Kılıcdaroglu’s visit.
Helaji, whose son Alim Helaji is missing, said he was told to “close my [fruit stand] business for three days and not to go outside.”
“Officials promised to pay me 500 yuan (U.S. $80) compensation for my business.”
Barat, who is missing his son Memet Barat, said he had received the same order from authorities for his scarf stall.
When contacted by RFA, Officer Dilmurat from the Bahuliang Police Station acknowledged that he had assisted in detaining the three women and their children. But he denied beating them, saying that he had simply “educated them about the law” and “only followed the orders of my superiors.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.