The public arrests of prominent Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities is part of a bid by authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) to instill fear in the local population, according to Uyghur sources in exile.
RFA’s Uyghur’s Service has documented a variety of methods authorities have used to arrest the 1.5 million Uyghurs and other minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas that are believed to have been detained in a vast network of camps in the region since April 2017.
In many cases, targets are simply summoned to local police stations where they are informed that they are being taken into custody, but others play out in more frightening ways, including midnight raids in which authorities lead residents out of their homes handcuffed and with black hoods placed over their heads.
Perhaps the most terrifying arrests are those of prominent intellectuals, businessmen, and religious figures, which often take place in public forums, such as their place of work or worship, and appear aimed at sending a message to the rest of the community to stay in line.
One such arrest was recently detailed to RFA by the secretary of the ruling Communist Party in a township in the XUAR’s Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture, who spoke to condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisal.
The secretary, who was attending a ceremony at a government building in Hotan’s Grand Bazaar, said that Tursun Tohtahun, the 30-year-old imam of the area’s Bostan Mosque, was arrested along with at least 10 other people, as hundreds of people looked on.
“He was arrested along with 10-20 other people during a flag raising ceremony … almost two years ago,” the secretary said.
“It was in front of the government building … [and] there were 500-600 people watching.”
The secretary said that those arrested along with Tohtahun “came from different areas,” but that all of them were men and ranged in age from 20 to 30 years old.
The youngest of the group was a 20-year-old man named Waris, he said.
According to the secretary, police stood in front of the crowd and called out the names of the men to be detained, before they were handcuffed, hooded, and led away to waiting vans. No explanation was given for their arrest, he said, and bystanders did not speak out against the authorities.
In the two years since Tohtahun’s arrest, police have yet to officially inform his family of why he was taken away or where he is being held.
Other public arrests
Aspects of Tohtahun’s public arrest appear to resemble that of Sherep Heyit, the former deputy head of the Education Bureau of Korla (Kuerle) city, in the XUAR’s Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture, who was detained in front of his colleagues in March last year while working in his new capacity as the head of the city’s No. 6 Middle School.
At the time, one of Heyit’s students told RFA that “the school organized a condemnation meeting, during which he was arrested and taken away in handcuffs.”
Another similar case is that of the deputy editor-in-chief of the official Xinjiang Daily, Ilham Weli, and three other senior Uyghur staff members, who were arrested at the newspaper’s office in the XUAR capital Urumqi last year.
Weli, who was also director of the Daily’s Uyghur Editorial Office, was arrested in late July 2018, while directors Memtimin Obul and Juret Haji, and Mirkamil Ablimit, the head of the subsidiary Xinjiang Farmer’s Daily, were denounced during a public meeting at the newspaper’s offices and taken away by police in early August, sources told RFA in September last year.
While the exact reason for their arrests was not made clear, authorities accused them of publishing “two-faced” articles in the Uyghur language section of the newspaper—a term applied by the government to Uyghur cadres who pay lip service to Communist Party rule in the XUAR, but secretly chafe against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.
Their detentions are believed to have prompted Qeyser Qeyum, the 55-year-old editor-in-chief of Literature Translation magazine, published under the Xinjiang Association of Literature and Art, to commit suicide soon after by jumping out of the 8th floor window of his office building.
Sources told RFA in September 2018 that Qeyum killed himself “out of fear” that he would be next after Weli and his colleagues were arrested at the office of the Xinjiang Daily, which sits adjacent to that of the Xinjiang Association of Literature and Art.
Memet Tursun Osman, a former detainee who was held in an internment camp in Hotan and who now lives in exile in Turkey, said during a recent interview that Chinese authorities “deliberately create an environment of fear” in the XUAR through arrests and interrogations.
Authorities “choose” to arrest prominent figures in local communities during public gatherings, he told RFA, adding that in some cases, detainees are even paraded in public to set an example for others.
“Tursun Tohti, the former police chief of [my home village] of Zabu was also held in my cell,” he said.
“He was taken out one day and two days later he returned, telling us that he had been put on public display on every street within the community.”
Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, said that public arrests of high profile Uyghurs are “aimed at breaking the spirit of Uyghur resistance to Chinese tyranny.”
“China’s practice of arresting prominent Uyghurs—whether they be intellectuals, artists or religious leaders—in front of other Uyghurs is meant to send a strong message of intimidation and terror to the crowd that China can arrest any Uyghur for any reason, should they dare to challenge China’s repressive rule,” he said.
While Beijing once denied the existence of the camps, China this 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.
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.
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month singled out China as one of the worst perpetrators of abuse against people of faith, particularly in the XUAR.
In September, at an event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said that the U.N. has failed to hold China to account over its policies in the XUAR and should demand unfettered access to the region to investigate reports of the mass incarceration and other rights abuses against Uyghurs.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.