Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region have jailed at least six Uyghurs who traveled to Turkey for educational purposes, according to a relative of the region’s former Communist Party chairman, despite a probe that found the students had not committed any crimes.
The three males—identified as Kawser, and brothers Mewlan and Jawlan—and the three females—Mudeser, Suriya, and Gulshan—were taken into custody after returning to Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture from Turkey between January and April this year.
The relative of former party chief Nur Bekri, who administered Xinjiang during deadly ethnic violence in the capital Urumqi in 2009, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that all six were sent in June to a re-education camp in Bortala, where she works as an instructor teaching social psychology to “implement correct thought.”
The six were handed prison terms of between five and 12 years in August, she said, adding that she did not know what charges they were convicted of.
“All I know is that they went to Turkey to study the language and broaden their educational knowledge,” said the relative, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“As no information was disclosed of what happened to each individual, I don’t know the exact situation. I only overheard what had happened to them,” she said.
According to the relative, an official investigation into the six students’ activities during their time in Turkey found that they had never been involved in “abnormal activities,” and that “their only intentions were to study.”
She said that Mudeser, Jawlan, and Kawser had been in her class at the re-education center, and showed no indication they were involved in any separatist activity in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs regularly complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
“Mudeser’s response [to her studies abroad] was extremely positive,” the relative said.
“When she returned from Turkey, she said, ‘There is no place that can match our homeland and, actually, China is our paradise,’” she added.
“There also were no issues with Kawser or Jawlan, but I don’t really know any more than that.”
The relative acknowledged that officials with the Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) County Re-Education Camp, in neighboring Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, had recently issued a statement saying that people “deemed to be criminals” had been sent to prison, while others “suspected of having criminal tendencies” had been sent for re-education.
But she said it was unclear if the statement pertained to the six students, adding that “we don’t know what their situation is or [which prison] they were sent to.”
The relative said she did not know why the students had initially been held at her re-education camp, where she claimed detainees are “unrestricted and content,” and are permitted to “study the law and regulations by watching TV.”
“We don’t make such inquiries [about individual cases],” the relative said, adding that even as a family member of Nur Bekri, she did not have access to the information.
“The law is absolute,” she said.
Shift in policy
Nur Bekri’s rule in Xinjiang was marked by heavy handed measures against his fellow ethnic Uyghurs in the region in the aftermath of the July 5, 2009 violence in Urumqi that left some 200 dead, according to state media, although Uyghur groups in exile put the number much higher.
He is widely derided as a puppet of Beijing and a traitor to the Uyghur people for instituting many of the policies that led to regular “strike hard” campaigns, including police raids, on Uyghur households and restrictions on Islamic practices under the banner of fighting "terrorism."
The ruling Chinese Communist Party blames some Uyghurs for a string of violent attacks and clashes in China in recent years, but critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the ethnic group, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since the 2009 unrest.
Thousands of Uyghurs, many of whom are students studying at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar Islamic University, have voluntarily traveled to Xinjiang from Egypt since the beginning of the year when Chinese authorities detained many of their relatives and threatened them with “severe punishment” if they did not return.
More than 200 Uyghurs have been detained by Egyptian authorities since July 4, rounded up in restaurants or at their homes, with others seized at airports as they tried to flee to safer countries, sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service in earlier reports.
Dozens of Uyghurs in Egypt are believed to have already been deported home to China, where rights groups say they face a serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture, while reports suggest that many who have voluntarily returned have been subjected to blacklisting and punishment.
Written by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.