In February 2017 Jaudat Abasi, a Tatar man who now lives in Europe, travelled to his former hometown Ürümchi, the capital of China´s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to visit his mother who was hospitalized after a surgery. He was stunned to see the city dramatically transformed with thousands of armed police and checkpoints. Before he left a few weeks later, his brother Shafkat Abasi was detained. Almost three years on, Shafkat is still imprisoned, and the family recently learned that he received a 10 years sentence.
Jaudat has lived abroad since 2005, but has regularly traveled back to Xinjiang for business, visiting friends and relatives. As the years went by, he noticed the situation in the region gradually deteriorating with heavy surveillance and restrictions on local ethnic culture and religion.
It began to remind him of the Cultural Revolution when he and his brother were born. But there was an important difference. He said, “At that time many people were imprisoned as well. The difference this time is that all the ethnic minorities are targeted.”
His younger brother Shafkat stayed in Ürümchi with his wife and three children – a daughter who is now 13, and twin sons who are 8 years old. Shafkat studied traditional Uyghur medicine at the Xinjiang Uyghur Medicine College in Hotan, and in 2010 he opened his own clinic close to the Grand Bazaar in the heart of the Uyghur district in Ürümchi.
Jaudat said, “My brother also had a small factory where he produced herbal medicine. He gave lessons on traditional Uyghur medicine, and advised listeners on a health show run by the Ürümchi radio station. He treated various conditions including skin diseases. This is how he lived his life.”
When he was in Ürümchi visiting his parents in 2017, Jaudat Abasi also went to see his brother Shafkat. “Since I was only staying in China for a few weeks, I thought it would be convenient to use my brother’s computer to check my email, and I also visited some foreign websites,” he remembered. “A couple of days later my brother told me that he had been confronted by the police asking questions about why foreign websites were accessed from his computer.”
On March 13th 2017, the day before Jaudat Abasi was leaving for Russia, his brother Shafkat´s wife and children came to his parents house. They told him that Shafkat had been taken to the police station.
“I immediately blamed myself. I thought it must be because of me using his computer,” Jaudat said. “Shafkat´s wife told me that he also had some books about religion and history that he kept in his clinic, and she suspected this to be another reason for his detention, as well as his connection to an elderly imam who was a patient of his.”
Jaudat and his family were terrified. He said, “I was so nervous when I left China the next day. I was afraid that they would detain me as well. The police had come to my parent’s house asking for me, and they were very upset when they realized I wasn´t there anymore.” Two months later in May 2017 Jaudat´s and Shafkat´s elder brother, who is also living abroad, travelled to Ürümchi to try to find out more information about Shafkat. The request was denied by the police. They told him that visiting Shafkat was not possible. After his visit Jaudat’s elder brother has since been denied visas to enter China again.
As Jaudat puts it, “It is a human right to have contact with your family, but the Chinese government is denying us this.”
Further attempts to gain information about Shafkat´s case were also met with silence by Chinese authorities. Then on November 2019, the family in Ürümchi suddenly received a phone call from the police. They were told that Shafkat Abasi was being held in a prison in Ürümchi, and that they were allowed a visit. On November 10 Shafkat Abasi´s ageing parents and his wife were allowed to see him for the first time in almost three years. The visit lasted for 15 minutes. They said he did not look well. His skin was pale, and he had lost a lot of weight.
Jaudat said, “The police told my parents that if I delete my testimonies for my brother that I posted on Twitter and Youtube, they might release him. But I don´t believe them.”
In March 2020, Jaudat’s family received the news that Shafkat had been given a 10 year prison sentence. They still don’t know what he has been charged with.
He said, “I hope that by raising our voices, we can rescue our innocent brothers and sisters who are suffering.”