At least five of nearly 20 missing relatives of a Netherlands-based Uyghur activist have been sentenced to prison, he recently learned, after receiving a letter confirming the incarcerations from the Chinese government in response to an inquiry by the Dutch foreign ministry.
Abdurehim Gheni, an ethnic Uyghur from Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture, in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), fled discrimination in the region in 2007 and resettled in the Netherlands—home to an exile community of around 1,500 Uyghurs.
In the summer of 2018, the university graduate and former chemistry teacher lost contact with his parents and other relatives who two years earlier had their homes torn down by authorities in Aksu’s Uchturpan (Wushi) county and were forced to resettle elsewhere, although he does not know where. Gheni believes that several of them were detained in the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since April 2017.
Beginning in June 2018, Gheni began staging weekly one-man demonstrations in Amsterdam’s Dam Square over Beijing’s repressive policies against Uyghurs and calling on China’s government to provide him information on the whereabouts of his 19 missing relatives, who he last saw in 2014. Among those he was searching for were his father, stepmother, three brothers, and their families.
Gheni met multiple times with representatives from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which made inquiries on his behalf to the Chinese Embassy in 2018. He has also written letters to King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Prime Minister Mark Rutte to enlist their help in his case, met with Dutch lawmakers, and has provided a testimonial on a database website that stores information on the relatives of Uyghurs who are missing in the XUAR.
On Sept. 29, the foreign ministry received a letter from an unidentified bureau of the Chinese government which said that Gheni’s oldest brother, Ablikim Gheni; Ablikim Gheni’s daughter Patima Ablikim; his younger brother Mijit Gheni; and two of his wife’s older brothers, Turghun Hamit and Adil Hamit, are all in state custody.
“Abdurehim Gheni’s older brother Ablikim Gheni was sentenced for 5 years and 6 months in August 2017, Ablikim Gheni’s oldest daughter Patima was sentenced for 6.5 years in March 2019, and Abdurehim Gheni’s youngest older brother Mijit Gheni was sentenced to 16.5 years in May 2018,” reads the letter, written in Chinese.
“Abdurehim Gheni’s wife’s older brother Turghun Hamit was sentenced to 16 years and six months for ethnic separatism in May 2019, and her younger older brother Adil Hamit was sentenced to three years.”
‘Being Uyghur is a crime’
Gheni told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the different charges made against his family, including things like “disturbing the social order,” “gathering and causing trouble,” “ethnic separatism,” and “inciting racial discrimination,” are trumped up.
“They’re using these as excuses—there’s no information about how they broke these laws, about what, specifically, they violated,” he said.
“Being Uyghur is itself a crime now ... They were just normal people who harbored no anti-China political sentiments.”
He said he believes that his older brothers, who are teachers, were detained and later sentenced simply for being Uyghurs who were proud of their heritage.
The letter also confirmed the death of his mother Tohtihan Bakri from “an illness in September 2014,” while adding that “the rest of his relatives are living normal lives.”
Abdurehim had been aware of his mother’s death at the time it occurred. In his letter to the Chinese government, he had asked for information about his stepmother—his father’s second wife.
“Even so, they didn’t give any information about my stepmother and instead gave me information about my mother, who died in 2014,” he said.
“I know about that already. The next letter I write to the Dutch Foreign Ministry will be about this.”
Gheni said he believes he was successful in learning about the fate of some of his family members because of his relentless campaigning—particularly through demonstrations in front of the Chinese Embassy—and urged other Uyghurs in the diaspora who are missing relatives to do the same.
“The best way to inquire about our detained and disappeared relatives in East Turkestan is to go to Chinese embassies,” he said, using a name preferred by many Uyghurs for their homeland.
“Because our relatives are Chinese citizens, we have to inquire about them through the embassies. By going through the foreign minister [of wherever Uyghurs are living], demonstrating in front of the ministry, writing letters, and demonstrating in front of embassies, we are able to get answers.”
Gheni noted that last month, after staging solo demonstrations in front of the Chinese Embassy, one of his younger brothers, whom he hadn’t seen in more than six years, called him, apparently at the behest of local authorities in Uchturpan.
“I pointed out that it had been several years since we’d been able to be in touch with one another, and he told me he knew I’d been to the embassy and filed a complaint. He said [authorities] had come to visit their house and told him to call me, so that’s why he called,” Gheni said.
“I got really worked up and I cried. I asked if our parents and relatives were still around. He said they are. He said they’re all still alive, and I asked him to let me talk to them in that case. ‘You can’t see them right now, just wait a bit longer,’ he said. But as of now there’s been no chance for him to let me talk to them.”
Gheni told RFA that it is the responsibility of each Uyghur living in the free world to use whatever peaceful methods and means they can to inquire into the whereabouts of their disappeared and imprisoned relatives, friends, and acquaintances.
“I’m just one typical example of Uyghurs [and what we’re going through],” he said, noting that authorities in the XUAR are believed to have detained an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps amid a three-year campaign of extrajudicial incarceration in the region.
“I am going to continue my activism to make their voices heard, to make the truth known.”
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.