China Issues Contradictory Statements on Fate of Parents of Uyghur Activist in Exile

uyghur-alfred-erkin-and-pompeo-may-2019-crop.jpg Alfred Erkin (C) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) during a meeting in Washington, March 27, 2019.
Secretary Pompeo's Twitter feed

China’s government has provided contradictory statements regarding the fate of the parents of a Uyghur activist in exile from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) after his case was highlighted by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to the activist.

In a Nov. 5 statement, Pompeo said that the U.S. was “deeply troubled” by reports that China’s government “has harassed, imprisoned, or arbitrarily detained family members of Uighur Muslim activists and survivors of Xinjiang internment camps who have made their stories public,” in some cases, shortly after meetings with senior State Department officials.

In particular, Pompeo mentioned Alfred Erkin—also known as Arafat Erkin—and two other Uyghurs he met with in March, saying they and their families had been “directly impacted by the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign of repression” in the XUAR, and calling on Beijing to “cease all harassment of Uighurs living outside of China, to release all those arbitrarily detained, and to allow families to communicate freely without repercussions.”

Five days later, an article carried by the English language version of the official China News Service cited a spokesperson of the XUAR government refuting Pompeo’s statement, saying that “the family members of the said three activists live and work normally in Xinjiang.”

The spokesperson specifically dismissed claims by Erkin that his mother was placed in one of the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017 and that his father had been arrested and sentenced in March 2018.

“The reality is that his father was sentenced because of his involvement in terrorist activities, while his mother, younger brother and younger sister all live a normal life,” the article said, citing the spokesperson, who also urged Pompeo to “stop smearing and attacking Xinjiang with rumors.”

On Nov. 16, China’s official Global Times tabloid daily tweeted a video it had produced in which it claimed that its reporters had spoken with the family members of Erkin and the two other Uyghurs mentioned by Pompeo, and “busted the lies peddled by [the] US Secretary of State” about the XUAR.

In a segment of the video dated Nov. 12, the Global Times interviews Erkin’s mother Gulnar Talat, who says she and other members of the family are “doing great at home” and “living a good life.”

She tells her son, who has been granted asylum in the U.S., that he “couldn’t have studied overseas without a strong motherland [at] your back," exhorting him to study hard and "honor the country in the future."

The Global Times also interviewed Erkin’s uncle, Asat Talat, who said he had learned that his nephew was “posting rumors on social media” since he traveled to the U.S. in 2015 to study finance at a university in New York.

“We didn't send you abroad for this—we thought you would focus on studying and be a useful man to the country when you return,” he said.

“After learning about your shameful deeds, we were so disappointed.”

Contradictory statements

The same day that the Global Times published its video, Erkin tweeted a confirmation that it included interviews with his relatives, saying that viewing it had left him “trembling” after seeing his mother’s face and hearing her voice for the first time in more than two years.

“[I] saw my mom and my uncle in [the] Chinese government’s propaganda video,” he said, noting in a later tweet that it had not included any information about his father.

Erkin also vowed to cease speaking out on social media if the Chinese government agreed to release his father, and even to hand himself over to authorities in China in exchange for his family being allowed to resettle in another country.

He said that his mother appeared physically unstable in the video, which he claimed “proves my previous testimony” because she “went through [a] big [surgery] following her release from the camp after [she was] detained [for] over a year.”

Two days later, Erkin tweeted that he had received an email from the U.N.’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), to which he had submitted a request earlier this year, asking the group to inquire with China on his behalf about his parents’ situation.

According to the U.N. email, which Erkin tweeted a photo of, China said that his father, a journalist with the Yi-Li TV Station and resident of Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) city named Erkin Tursun, was sentenced on May 5, 2018 to 19 years and 10 months of imprisonment and two years of deprivation of political rights for “harboring a criminal and inciting national enmity or discrimination.”

The rare response from China seemed to contradict earlier information provided by the XUAR spokesperson to the China News Service, that Tursun had been sentenced for “terrorist activities.”

Erkin also tweeted a photo of another section of the U.N. email, which said that China had also responded to the inquiry about his mother—a teacher at the No. 9 Kindergarten in Ghulja—saying only that “now she lives an ordinary life.”

Erkin noted that the response seemed to imply that Talat had formerly been held in an internment camp, despite the XUAR government spokesperson’s claims that she had never been detained.

“It’s amazing that they are exposing their lies themselves,” he said in an accompanying tweet.

Mass incarcerations

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.

While Beijing initially denied the existence of the internment 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, and Geng reiterated those points during his regular press briefing in the capital.

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.

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 Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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