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17 years and 10 months. A Uyghur Son Learns of his Mother’s Prison Sentence 

It is likely that Aliyem Urayim was detained the moment she landed in China after visiting Eli in Turkey.

“Your mother went to ´study.´” When Eli Yarmemet first received these words, he was convinced that it was a mistake and that she would soon be released from the reeducation camps. But three years on, the nightmare has just gotten worse, Eli recently learned that his mother has been sentenced to 17 years and 10 months in prison.

The last time Eli Yarmemet saw his mother was in December 2016. Eli – an ethnic Uyghur from northwest of China currently living in Norway — traveled with his family to Turkey, where they met up with his mother and spent two weeks together. At that time the mass detentions in Xinjiang had affected the entire Uyghur population. It was not until April 2017 that Chinese authorities intensified a brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities who make up more than half of the region’s population.

“Had I known anything about it I would never have let my mother go back to China,”  Eli said.

Eli Yarmemet describes what happened to his mother since 2017.

Facing mounting international criticism, government officials claim that the purpose of the camps is to promote Islamic de-radicalization and poverty alleviation by offering vocational training. 

Based on the evidence Eli has seen and who he knows his mother to be these claims are clearly untrue. He said, “That is absolute nonsense. Before her detention, my mother was a successful businesswoman. She has never held any radical ideas or involved herself in politics at all.”

It is likely that Aliyem Urayim was detained the moment she landed in China after visiting Eli in Turkey. 

“After she got back her phone was turned off and we couldn´t get in touch with her. After some time I got ahold of our relatives who told me that my mother ‘went to school to study’ — a euphemism for being sent to the camps.”

Eli´s mother, Aliyem Urayim, 48, was born and raised in Ghulja, a city in the north of the Xinjiang region. She had three sons. When her children were still very young, she and Eli’s father divorced. After that she started doing business, first as a street vendor selling perfume and makeup, and later by opening a small store. She developed her business step by step, and started to travel back and forth from China to Kazakhstan, trading goods. As a result Aliyem Urayim became a well-known person in her hometown. 

“A lot of people there know my mother’s name, since she is a very helpful person. She used to help those who wanted to apply for passports and visas to travel abroad — something that has always been difficult for ethnic minorities like Uyghurs without the right connections in the bureaucracy,” said Eli Yarmemet.

Besides being a busy businesswoman, Aliyem Urayim also cared for two of her grandchildren, now 3 and 5 years old, after her youngest son also divorced. The fate of his brother’s children is another thing that worries Eli Yarmemet.

“I have no idea what happened to them after my mother’s detention. I am worried that they might have been placed in an orphanage, but I don´t know. I heard that their father, my younger brother, has also been detained in a camp.”

For almost three years, Eli Yarmemet has not been able to get any information at all about his mother´s whereabouts. It was only recently that he learned that she has been sentenced to 17 years and 10 months in prison. 

The harsh punishment follows a recent pattern in the Xinjiang region, in which detainees in re-education camps, have been transferred to actual prisons and received extremely long sentences based on unknown or vague, sweeping charges. 

The little information that has trickled out is extremely troubling. 

“From what I heard indirectly, a relative has visited my mom in prison. Her health has deteriorated there. She asked for money, since she needs to see a doctor. I wish that at least I could send her money, but who could I possibly send it to?”

Like many Uyghurs in exile, Eli has been cut off from all family and friends in China. Either their phone numbers are not working or they deleted him as a contact on WeChat, the main social media platform in China. Having contacts abroad can be a reason for detention, and people are afraid.

“For example, the last time I spoke with my father was five years ago,” says Eli. “Ending the conversation he told me, ‘Please take care of yourself, and don’t call us again.’ I don’t know anything about his situation since that last phone call.”

Eli Yarmemet was initially reluctant to speak out publicly about the dire situation in Xinjiang, in fear of retaliation against loved ones still living there. He said:

“When I first heard of my mother’s detention I was confident that she would soon be released, since she is a completely innocent law abiding citizen. So I stayed silent and waited. I was afraid that I would cause her trouble by speaking out. But as months turned into years I realized that the authorities were not going to let her out. About a year ago I decided to make a video testimony for my mother, and I posted several testimonies since. I tried my best, but so far nothing has helped. My mother is still in this terrible situation, and we don´t know how it will end. My own mental health is severely affected, and I see a psychologist often. I just wish so much that I could bring my mother here to Norway with me.”

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