A Pakistan-born Uyghur who fled to Afghanistan after being harassed for rejecting China’s offer to be a spy says he is facing pressure from Beijing-friendly groups to return to Pakistan.
Kamirdin Abdurahman, 43, said he was given refugee status last month in Afghanistan by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly two years after he fled to the neighboring country following threats he received for refusing to spy for Beijing on the activities of Uyghurs in Pakistan.
In an interview with RFA, Abdurahman said Uyghurs in Pakistan with links to China are now pressuring him to come back with warnings that he could be harmed.
“They … asked me to go to the Chinese embassy [in Afghanistan or Pakistan] and tear up the [UNHCR] approval letter in front of the embassy officials,” he said.
Abdurahman said that on receiving the UNHCR approval, he received a call from Raza Khan, the head of the Overseas Chinese Association of Pakistan, a Uyghur organization that receives funding from the Chinese embassy in Islamabad.
“Raza Khan said, ‘We heard you have had a hard time in Afghanistan for no reason. You have to come back to Islamabad. I can take you to the [Chinese] embassy; you just have to say you made a mistake in applying for political asylum,’” Abdurahman said.
Khan also offered him free housing if he gave up his plea for political asylum, and threatened, “‘If [you do] not, you should not forget how strong China is. Our hands can reach Kabul easily if needed.’”
Abdurahman said he also received a similar call from a man identifying himself as a Chinese state security official and claiming to be the boss of an officer named Osman who had overseen his detention when he traveled to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region two years ago.
“In the same week, I received call from China, from a man who said he was ‘Osman’s chief.’ He also advised me to give up the refugee status and offered me free travel to China,” Abdurahman said.
Pressured in Pakistan
In October 2009, Abdurahman traveled from Pakistan to visit relatives in Yarkand, an oasis town near Kashgar in the western tip of the Xinjiang region, where many Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, resent Chinese rule and which had just witnessed its worst ethnic violence in decades.
Chinese authorities detained Abdurahman for 15 days for “harming public order” and interrogated him.
After releasing him, they asked him to spy on Uyghur exile groups in Pakistan and report back to the Chinese government, promising him free travel and freedom from harassment for his business interests in China.
After returning to Pakistan, Abdurahman shared his story with RFA.
But he began receiving phone calls, both from Pakistanis and from China, criticizing him for speaking out about the story.
Concerned for his safety, in December 2009 he fled Pakistan to Afghanistan, bringing his wife and five children, and applied for refugee status at the UNHCR offices in Kabul pending political asylum in another country.
Omer Khan, head of the Omer Uyghur Trust, a foundation run by Uyghurs in Pakistan and which the Chinese authorities urged Abdurahman to spy on, said that his group is paying close attention to Abdurahman’s situation.
“This is the first Pakistani Uyghur who fled from Pakistan to apply for political asylum in a third country because of Chinese pressure,” he said.
“Friends” in Afghanistan
Abdurahman said he has received not only phone calls, but also visits from pro-China groups telling him to give up his refugee status.
“At the beginning of my time in Afghanistan, almost one year ago, my children were not able to go to school and I had a lot of financial difficulty because my application was not approved yet.”
“Now that I’ve been granted asylum … my ‘friends’ have appeared,” Abdurahman said, referring to the pro-China groups harassing him to give up his refugee status.
“Last week, two ‘friends’ whom I don’t know came to Kabul. They invited me to the hotel where they were staying. I rejected and they suggested I go to the Chinese Embassy in Kabul” Abdurahman said.
One of the men was a Pakistani and the other was a Uyghur-Pakistani, Abdurahman said.
“They said, ‘If you are concerned about your safety for going to the embassy in Islamabad, then you can go to the embassy in Kabul. The process is so simple, you just tear up your approval letter and mention your regret for applying [for refugee status]. We will record the scene [in video], and you can get benefits from us in Afghanistan also, like housing and many other things.’”
Abdurahman refused, but the two men said they would be back to visit later.
China is wary of Uyghur communities in countries on its borders, sometimes blaming violence in its restive Xinjiang region on “overseas separatist groups,”
In August, Kashgar officials accused Pakistan of harboring Uyghurs who carried out terrorist attacks in the city. Pakistan, home to around 3,000 Uyghurs, has deported over 30 Uyghurs back to China since 1997.
In recent years, many Uyghurs fleeing China have also been deported from countries with strong trade and diplomatic ties to China, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Laos.
Most of those deported had fled the Xinjiang region.
Their extradition has drawn widespread condemnation from international rights groups who say the Uyghurs are likely to face torture or even death upon their return.
Abdukeyyim Shemshidin, another member of the Omer Uyghur Trust, said the Chinese government will not want Afghanistan to emerge as an easy place for Uyghurs to go to apply for asylum.
“China succeeded in picking up Uyghur refugees in Central and South Asia. [In all these] places, America has tried to block [their] deportation, but the local government has listened to the Chinese government instead of the U.S. because of China’s influence in the region.”
“I guess now Afghanistan is the only the place where American influence is stronger than China’s, which is why China doesn’t want to see a place like Afghanistan appear as a safe place for Uyghurs to go to a third country.”
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.