Chinese database reveals thousands detained in Xinjiang

  • A list of thousands of Uighurs detained in China’s Xinjiang region has been leaked.
  • An estimated one million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities are held in a secret network of detention centers and prisons.
  • China has cracked down on Xinjiang as part of an “anti-terrorism” campaign.

A leaked list of thousands of detained Uyghurs has helped Nursimangul Abdureshid shed light on the fate of his missing family members, who disappeared in China’s sweeping crackdown on Xinjiang.

Researchers estimate that more than a million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities are being held in a secret network of detention centers and prisons, apparently as part of a counter-terrorism campaign after a series of attacks.

Yet news of the crackdown in the Xinjiang region – and those trapped there – are closely monitored by Chinese communist authorities.

This has prevented relatives from contacting detainees or seeking answers from police, with only a fraction of Xinjiang’s court opinions publicly available.

READ | Amazon accused of using Chinese suppliers linked to Uyghur forced labor

Abdureshid, who now lives in Turkey, lost contact with his family five years ago.

It took until 2020 for the Chinese embassy in Ankara to confirm that his younger brother Memetili, along with his parents, had been imprisoned for terrorism-related offences.

But an alleged police list leaked to Uyghur activists outside China located Memetili in a jail outside the city of Aksu, about 600 kilometers (375 miles) from their home.

He was sentenced to 15 years and 11 months in prison, according to the documents – a figure confirmed by Beijing’s embassy in Ankara.

“It’s much better than not knowing where he is. There is a little happiness,” Abdureshid, 33, told AFP from Istanbul, where she has lived since 2015.

“I sometimes check the weather there, to see if it’s cold or warm.”

‘I can not breathe’

The unpublished database, which was consulted by AFP, lists more than 10,000 Uyghurs imprisoned in Konasheher county in southwestern Xinjiang, including more than 100 from Abdureshid village.

The location of his parents remains a mystery, as well as that of an older brother who is also believed to be detained.

Abdureshid recognized the names of seven other villagers on the detainee list – all small business owners or farm workers who she said had no connection to terrorism.

She says:

When I search through this list, I feel like I can’t breathe.

The leaked list details the name, date of birth, ethnicity, ID number, charge, address, sentence length and prison for each prisoner.

It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the database.

But AFP interviewed five Uyghurs living outside China who identified relatives and acquaintances detained on the list.

For some, it was the first information they could access about their loved ones in years.

Hundreds of people were detained in every township and village, according to the database, often from the same family.

“It’s not clearly targeted counter-terrorism,” said David Tobin, senior lecturer in East Asian studies at the University of Sheffield in Britain.

“It goes to every door and takes a number of people. It really shows that they are arbitrarily targeting a community and scattering it over an area.”

People have been jailed on numerous charges, including “gathering a group to disrupt social order”, “promoting extremism” and “causing quarrels and causing trouble”.

Government data shows that the number of people sentenced by Xinjiang courts has risen from around 21,000 in 2014 to more than 133,000 in 2018.

Many other Uighurs, never charged with any crimes, have been sent to what activists call “re-education camps” spread across Xinjiang.

In these camps, which Beijing calls “vocational training centers”, foreign governments and rights groups have found evidence of what they say forced labor, political indoctrination, torture and forced sterilization .

The United States and lawmakers in a number of other Western countries have called Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs a genocide.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet is due to make a long-awaited visit to China, including Xinjiang, this month. But activists warn that access is likely to fall well short of an independent investigation into China’s alleged abuses.

Someone from every house

As Beijing’s “strike hard” ideological campaign against Islamic extremism intensified in 2017, the proportion of prison sentences exceeding five years nearly tripled from the previous year.

Most were spoken in closed trials.

Norway-based Uyghur activist Abduweli Ayup told AFP he recognized the names of around 30 relatives and neighbors on the leaked list.

“In Oghusaq, my father’s native village, and in Opal, my mother’s native village, you can see that every house has someone detained,” Ayup said, adding that it was mainly traders and illiterate farmers.

He said:

My cousin was just a farmer. If you ask him what “terrorism” is, he can’t even read the word, let alone understand it.

A second suspected leaked police database consulted by AFP identifies an additional 18,000 Uighurs, mostly from Kashgar and Aksu prefectures, detained between 2008 and 2015.

Of these, the vast majority have been charged with vague terrorism-related offences.

Several hundred were linked to the 2009 Urumqi riots in which nearly 200 people died. More than 900 people have been charged with manufacturing explosives.

Nearly 300 cases mention viewing or possessing “illegal” videos.

A Uighur living in Europe who wishes to remain anonymous told AFP he recognized six friends on the second list, including one who was 16 at the time of the detention.

“I was devastated to see so many people I knew,” he told AFP.

‘Harmonious and stable’

Beijing vehemently denies that it persecutes Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Instead, he describes his treatment of Uyghurs as a legitimate response to extremism and claims to have spent billions of dollars on economic renewal in the impoverished region.

“We have already refuted the lies fabricated by some organizations and individuals about Xinjiang,” China’s foreign ministry wrote in response to AFP’s questions about the leaked list.

READ ALSO | Control of Uyghur population in China was genocide: report

“Xinjiang society is harmonious and stable…and all ethnic minorities fully enjoy various rights.”

Yet from his small, plant-filled apartment in Istanbul, Abdureshid tries to piece together the semblance of a normal life from the dislocation, fear and loss now attached to being Uyghur.

It was only recently that she told her young daughter about her missing relatives and said the leaked list was a stark reminder of her people’s struggle.

“My pain just doubled,” she said.

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