A Uyghur professor and founder of a Uyghur language software firm has been missing for more than a year and is presumed detained in a political “re-education camp” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to sources.
A group of Uyghur intellectuals living in exile recently posted to social media a list of colleagues they believe are interned in the XUAR’s vast network of camps, where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
Among those on the list is Alim Ahet, a faculty member at the School of Mathematics and System Science at Xinjiang University in the XUAR capital Urumqi, who the exiled intellectuals noted had “disappeared” from their WeChat group in January 2018.
Since then, they said, Ahet’s overseas contacts have been unable to communicate with him and believe he has been arrested.
Ahet had partnered with Microsoft while working as a lecturer at Xinjiang University and in 1998 formed Urumqi UighurSoft Computer Ltd.—the first company to produce software in the Uyghur, Kazakh and Kirgiz languages.
UighurSoft also produced dictionary software used by speakers of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kirgiz to study Chinese, as well as the first software to include a spell checking function for the three languages.
Ahet’s firm gained him recognition as a ground breaking software developer and in 2011, Chinese officials recognized him with an award as a "top ten innovator of China."
While investigating Ahet’s disappearance, RFA’s Uyghur Service found that his name had been scrubbed from the faculty list on the Xinjiang University School of Mathematics and System Science website.
RFA spoke to a Chinese staff member at the school who confirmed that Ahet “is no longer working here.”
When asked when he had left the school, the staff member hung up the phone.
RFA was also able to contact a source in Urumqi who revealed under the condition of anonymity that Ahet had “not been seen in public for the last year.”
Alim Ahet’s former schoolmate, Norway-based Uyghur activist Helchem Memtimin—who last saw the mathematician in the XUAR in 2003 after he returned from a trip to London—told RFA he had disappeared sometime “in the summer of 2018.”
Memtimin called Ahet “one of the most intelligent and quick-thinking students in class,” and questioned why he would be targeted by authorities.
“The Chinese government has incarcerated millions of people in re-education camps, including a vast number of highly educated, extraordinary individuals,” said Memtimin, a member of the Norway Uyghur Association.
“Alim Ahet is a highly trained intellectual; he doesn't need any education from the Chinese government,” he said, adding that if Ahet is being held at a camp, authorities should release him “immediately and unconditionally.”
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs. Official propaganda for a time called them “boarding schools.”
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown 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.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department's human rights and democracy bureau, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, said in March people "haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s" and called the internment of more than a million Uyghurs "one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today."
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
In remarks at a news conference at the Pentagon on May 3 that rankled Beijing, Randall Schriver, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, said “the Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news conference on May 6 that China “voiced strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to Schriver’s comments, which he called "totally inconsistent with the facts.”
Reported by Sada for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.