A Chinese state newspaper has released a video in which a prominent Uyghur historian who disappeared in 2017 in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) denies reports that he had been detained, prompting his daughter to suggest the recording was made under duress.
Iminjan Seydin, 54, began teaching courses on Chinese history at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in the XUAR capital Urumqi in 1988 upon graduating from the prestigious Xinjiang University and in 2012 formed the Imin Publishing House, which within five years had issued around 50 books on topics that included technology, education, psychology, and women’s issues.
Seydin, while a Muslim, was not particularly religious and generally adhered to government guidelines on faith—putting his loyalty to the Communist Party before the central tenets of Islam—according to his daughter, Samira Imin, who has lived in exile in the U.S. since 2014 and recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service.
He taught secular courses on revolutionary history, joined several government-sponsored hajj pilgrimages to Mecca, and in early 2017 was sent to Kokterek village, in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Guma (Pishan) county, to join a work group with the XUAR Bureau of Religious Affairs.
But despite toeing the party line, Seydin was detained upon his return to Urumqi in May 2017 by the Public Security Bureau, which did not provide his family with any information about where he was being held, Imin told RFA in December last year, citing contacts in the XUAR.
Imin said her father was convicted in a closed trial some two years later for publishing a book about Arabic grammar as a favor for a colleague at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute which included some references to Islam—literature that is permitted under Chinese laws protecting religious freedom.
RFA was able to obtain a document from an anonymous source in the XUAR which shows that Seydin was initially held at a facility that makes up part of the region’s network of 1,300-1,400 internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
The document, entitled “Notice on the Censuring of Iminjan Seydin” and issued by the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in November 2019, said that in February 2019 Urumqi’s Tengritagh (Tianshan) District Court found Seydin guilty of “inciting extremism” and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, five years’ deprivation of political rights, and a fine of 500,000 yuan (U.S. $71,000), although it cites no evidence of his crimes.
In its notice, the school says it ended Seydin’s employment contract after he was detained and placed in a camp, dissolved his relationship to the institute, and terminated his salary and benefits.
On Monday, the official China Daily published a video saying that “overseas anti-China forces deceived” Imin into thinking authorities had “illegally detained” her father, who they referred to as “a retired teacher,” and that he wanted to record a video refuting the “rumor.”
“In fact, that was not true,” Seydin, who appears to have been shaved bald despite sporting a flowing head of hair three years earlier, says in the video. “This is deception and nonsense.”
“I am living well, healthy and free. My girl, I just want to tell you this: to not believe them or do anything they ask you to do. If not for [the] Communist Party of China and government, we would not be living a happy life like now.”
Seydin asks his daughter to “stop saying those things” and expresses hope that she can finish her studies early and be reunited with her family in China, where he says she will “have many opportunities.”
‘Working in Hotan’
Speaking to RFA days later, Imin said she was able to hold a video call with her father on Tuesday through the WeChat messaging platform, during which he told her “he’d been working in Hotan the whole time and wanted to really focus on what he was doing, and so he’d not been using his phone.”
“So, he completely denied that he was detained,” she said.
According to Imin, Seydin told her that he had recently received an annual medical checkup and was given a clean bill of health, despite having previously suffered from a vascular condition in his legs.
“He mostly spoke, and I didn’t really say much,” she said. “He talked about the [importance of loyalty to the] government and the Party.”
“He didn’t say that he was going back to work, but he said that he would start getting in touch with me every day. I could see in his face, it was like he was saying, ‘finally, I’m back,’ and he looked happy.”
Imin said that when she asked her father why he had no hair, he told her “he had it shaved off to deal with all the sand in Hotan.”
“My dad has always been proud of his hair—he never cut it so short,” Imin said.
“If you look at what he was wearing [in the video], it looks like [the authorities] just grabbed whatever old clothes they could find from his closet and dressed him in a hurry to film it,” she added.
“My dad is the kind of person who [usually] pays a lot of attention to his appearance, to his clothes. As for his physical appearance, he’s lost a lot of weight. I’ve never seen my father so small before.”
RFA also spoke with Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific Advocacy Manager at Amnesty International USA, who questioned the claims made in the China Daily video.
“Obviously we are very much concerned about the arbitrary detention and sentencing of Iminjan—it’s clear he had an unfair trial and this video is not independently verified, as it was released by the government,” he said.
“China is well-known for forcing prisoners to say things in order to discredit the pressure the Chinese government is getting around Iminjan’s case, but also about Uyghurs in general.”
Bencosme said that the secretive nature of Seydin’s trial highlights the kinds of tactics the XUAR government is using to persecute Uyghurs in the region, while seeking to legitimize them in the name of stamping out “religious extremism.”
“If there was nothing really going on with Iminjan then no there is no reason why they shouldn’t release him and why there shouldn’t be a proper investigation into all the Uyghurs who are continuously put in camps,” he said.
“That’s why we have to take videos like this with a grain of salt.”
Video propaganda campaign
In recent months, the hashtag #StillNoInfo has gained a following on social media platforms among Uyghurs in exile who say their relatives are likely detained in camps or imprisoned in the XUAR.
The hashtag became even more widely used after XUAR Chairman Shohret Zakir held a press conference on Dec. 9 claiming that all detainees in the camps, which China refers to as “vocational education and training centers,” had “graduated” and returned to their homes, prompting many exiled Uyghurs to question why they were still unable to contact their relatives and loved ones.
In response, China Global Television Network (CGTN)—the international arm of the official China Central Television (CCTV)—has launched a video propaganda campaign entitled “Crash the #StillNoInfo rumors” in which news anchor Tao Yuan meets with several of the “missing” relatives as part of a bid to challenge the claims made by Uyghurs in exile about China’s policies in the XUAR.
China’s domestic broadcaster CCTV has in recent years been caught out staging televised confessions of human rights lawyers and activists. In one case, human rights lawyer Wang Yu said in 2018 that she had agreed to make a forced confession after Chinese authorities threatened to stop her from seeing her son.
Reported by Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.