Two Uyghur petitioners are back in China’s capital after they were forcibly returned to their hometown in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for petitioning in front of the United Nations office and speaking to foreign media about their grievances.
Aygul Tohti, 39, and Tursun Ghupur, 32, came back to Beijing by train on Saturday after spending three days in detention in Urumqi. There, they were interrogated about their future plans to petition the government and about interviews they conducted with RFA.
Tohti had been left homeless after her house was demolished by authorities in Maralbeshi, while Ghupur had been injured in an explosion by a piece of unexploded ordnance left uncollected by the army following a series of military drills outside the city of Kashgar.
Tohti said that she and Ghupur were approached by two Urumqi security bureau officers on the morning of April 4 at a petitioner’s encampment under a bridge in Beijing.
“They said they wanted to take us somewhere to listen to our story. But as we made our way downtown, they started to take us to the airport to return us to Urumqi,” she said.
“I said, ‘In the beginning you didn’t tell us we were going back to Urumqi by airplane.’ I complained that I hadn’t dressed properly, and I refused to go on the plane.”
Tohti said the officers decided to give her 500 yuan (U.S. $75), but when she complained that she would not be able to buy an appropriate dress for so little money, they handed her 2,000 yuan (U.S. $300) instead.
“I spent some of the 2,000 for my dress, and then I used the rest to return to Beijing by train after I was released from detention.”
Ghupur said that he and Tohti had been brought back to Urumqi and held for three nights in the security bureau’s meeting hall, where they were interrogated during the day and slept on the sofa in the evening.
“Every four hours, two policemen would take a shift watching us throughout the night. Even when they brought us back from Beijing via airplane, two police officers sat on either side of us guarding us on the plane,” he said.
Ghupur said that during the interrogation, officers asked him who had organized a March protest by petitioners in front of the United Nations office in Beijing and asked how he had contacted RFA to discuss his grievances against the government.
“I said, I’ve been petitioning for years. I will tell my story to whoever will listen. I never even asked who the interviewer was,” he said.
He said the security officers presented him with a 50-page report about his petitioning over the years and asked him to sign it, saying they would send it to the relevant office to help him with his petition.
“They said, ‘We’ll do what we can, but we can’t promise that the higher-ups will resolve your problem.’”
They told him that he had the right to continue petitioning his case, as long as he no longer did it in front of the U.N. office in Beijing.
“’The U.N. is a powerless organization; it can’t resolve your problem. If you go there, you will only be wasting your time,’ they said.”
Warned against interviews
Ghupur said the officers also warned him and Tohti about accepting interviews from RFA.
“They said, ‘You can accept any journalist’s interview, as long as it isn’t the RFA Uyghur service. Whoever calls you for an interview, you should first ask them who they are.’”
“I answered that until my problem is solved, I was willing to tell anyone my story that would listen to me. I said that I was also ready to accept punishment for that,” he said.
“After the fourth day, they released us on the street in Urumqi. We went to the government office to petition, but as usual no one listened to us, so we went back to Beijing.”
Tohti said she was asked how she knew the reporter that had interviewed her from RFA’s Uyghur service.
“I answered that I never asked who it was that interviewed me by phone. Who they were and from where, I never asked. They said, ‘Do not accept interviews from foreign journalists, especially from RFA.’”
“I asked them to give us a letter showing that they detained us for three nights and interrogated us. They said no. Then I said, ‘Why didn’t you just arrest us?’ They said that they didn’t have the legal right to arrest us.”
“I said that when the time comes, they wouldn’t ask if they could arrest us. Then they dumped Tursun and me on the street in Urumqi.”
A security officer who answered the phone at the bureau office in Urumqi on Monday said he would be unable to answer questions about the cases.
Tursun Ghupur was injured on Oct.1, 1993 when he and two of his brothers accidentally detonated unexploded ordnance left near the Kashgar airport by the military during drills held the week before.
The explosion killed one of his younger brothers and severely injured the other. Ghupur was left with a seriously damaged eye.
He began to petition the authorities for restitution in 1998, going from the military to the local, provincial, and central government.
He spent two years in prison for “illegal petitioning,” but continues to lobby the authorities.
Aygul Tohti, of Kashgar prefecture’s Maralbeshi county, was told by authorities in 2004 that her home was to be razed to make way for a new earthquake-proof housing project.
But the government in Shiker Kol village where she lived ran out of funds to build the proposed buildings, and she was left homeless.
The small amount of subsidies that she receives from the local government is inadequate to buy or rent a new home, she said.
She has been petitioning the government since 2004 and was previously detained for 10 days after she was accused of illegal petitioning.
Thousands of petitioners go to Beijing each year to seek redress for complaints against their local governments.
They are frequently held in "black jails," which stand outside the criminal justice system, and are escorted back to their hometowns by local governments, which run representative offices in the capital for the purpose.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.