China 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 minorities, mostly Muslims, 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 some light on the whereabouts of his missing family members, who have gone missing in China’s sweeping crackdown on Xinjiang.

Researchers estimate that more than a million Uyghurs and other minorities, mostly Muslims, are being held in a secret network of detention centers and prisons, apparently as part of an anti-terrorist campaign after a series of attacks.

However, China’s communist authorities keep a close eye on information about the crackdown in the Xinjiang region, and about those who have been caught up in it.

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

READ | Amazon Accused of Using Chinese Suppliers with Links to Uyghur Forced Labor

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

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

But a suspicious police list leaked to Uyghur activists outside China has placed Memetili in a prison outside the city of Aksu, some 600 kilometers (375 miles) from his home.

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

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

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

‘I can’t breathe’

The previously unreported database, which has been seen by AFP, lists more than 10,000 jailed Uyghurs from Konasheher County, southwestern Xinjiang, including more than 100 from Abdureshid village.

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

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

She said:

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

The leaked list details each prisoner’s name, date of birth, ethnicity, identification number, title, address, length of sentence and prison term.

It has not been 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 had been able to access about their relatives in years.

Hundreds were detained from every township and village, the database shows, often many from the same household.

“This is not clearly targeted counter-terrorism,” said David Tobin, a professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield in Britain.

“He goes to all the doors and takes multiple people. It really shows that they are arbitrarily targeting a community and scattering it across a region.”

The individuals were jailed on broad charges including “assembling a group to disrupt the social order”, “promoting extremism” and “provoking fights and stirring up trouble”.

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

Many other Uyghurs, never charged with any crime, were sent to what activists call “re-education camps” scattered across Xinjiang.

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

The United States and lawmakers in several other Western countries have described Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide.

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

someone from each house

As Beijing’s “Strike Hard” ideological campaign against Islamic extremism escalated in 2017, the proportion of prison sentences of more than five years almost tripled from the previous year.

Most were handed down in closed-door trials.

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

“In Oghusaq, my father’s hometown, and Opal, my mother’s hometown, you can see that in every house someone is detained,” Ayup said, adding that they were mostly illiterate traders and farmers.

He said:

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

A second allegedly leaked police database seen by AFP identifies a further 18,000 Uyghurs, mostly from Kashgar and Aksu prefectures, detained between 2008 and 2015.

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

Several hundred were linked to the 2009 Urumqi riots in which nearly 200 people were killed. More than 900 people were charged with making explosives.

Nearly 300 cases mentioned 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 arrest.

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

‘harmonious and stable’

Beijing vehemently denies that it is persecuting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Instead, he describes his treatment of the Uyghurs as a legitimate response to extremism and says he has spent billions of dollars on the economic renewal of the poor region.

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

READ ALSO | Control of China’s Uyghur population 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 associated with being a Uyghur.

She recently told her young daughter about her missing relatives and says the leaked list was a stark reminder of her people’s struggle.

“My pain doubled,” he said.

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