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The Elephant in the XUAR: I. Entire families sentenced

Nursiman Abdureshid with photos of her parents and two brothers, all of whom have been given long prison sentences in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.

This is the first in a series of three articles highlighting the massive expansion of the prison system in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that has taken place in recent years. The prisons have been running in parallel with the much-covered concentration camps (“vocational training centers”) and possess many of the same traits, interning hundreds of thousands without real due process and engaging in labor exploitation. However, while international action has led to many, if not most, of the camp detainees have been let out as a result of international action; by contrast, those currently in prisons have long sentences and have not seen concessions. The world remains passive on the issue.

For Nursiman Abdureshid, June 15, 2020 is now remembered as the worst day of her life. As the day when, after three years of little to no news, she was finally given official confirmation regarding the fate of her disappeared family in Kashgar. The confirmation was delivered via a phone call from a representative of the Chinese embassy in Ankara to Nursiman in Istanbul, where she now works as a marketing manager at an automotive spare parts company.

“You mean to say it’s like I heard?” Nursiman asked. “That there’s no one left at home now?”

“That’s about right,” said the representative. “It’s like that, according to what we have found out.”

“How is that possible? Take my mother, at least. What crime could she have committed? A woman in her fifties…”

“It’s… written clearly in the file that we received. I mean, to be frank… Ours is a country of law, so they must have a reason. It’s written that she was sentenced to a 13-year prison term on December 13, 2017 for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.”

“…December 13, 2017. Okay. And my father?”

“He… was sentenced to 16 years and 11 months for the crimes of disturbing public order and preparing to commit terrorist activities. He is in prison now.”

At this point, Nursiman started to break down and, excusing her emotional state, asked the representative to repeat what he said. He did.

“And then, my younger brother?” Nursiman went on, asking about her 30-year-old brother, Memet’eli.

“His was on August 20, 2017. He was sentenced to 15 years and 11 months for a criminal offense and for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.”

The news would come as an emotional coup de grâce following an extremely long period of uncertainty– more precisely,Nursiman and her sister, Nur’iman (also outside of China), were now receiving the news no faster than three years after the initial arrests. Not mentioned was their other brother, Emetjan, who had already been given a 7-year sentence in 2016, roughly a year before the rest of the family, formerly recognized as “model citizens” by the very state that now sentenced them, was taken.

At one point, himself likely aware of the raw brutality of what he was delivering, the embassy representative made an attempt at sympathy.

“I understand very clearly how it must feel,” he said, but then added, “However, there are some things that we simply have to face.”

In the case of Abdurehim Gheni, a lab employee and now Dutch citizen, such “sympathy” was overtly lacking. A year after losing all touch with his family in May 2017, he took to carrying out solo protests regularly in Amsterdam’s Dam Square, publicly asking for news about his relatives and telling passersby about the situation in his homeland. Simultaneously, he wrote letters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to have them contact the Chinese authorities and inquire about his family. In August 2020, having still received no reply, he went to the Chinese embassy and demanded answers in person, but was rudely forced out by the hired security guard and fined 1000 euros after a brief stay in police custody. Around a month later, the answers finally came. In a curt letter, the Chinese side bluntly stated that Abdurehim’s two brothers, niece, and two brothers-in-law had all been given long prison terms, before reminding him that his mother had died of illness 6 years earlier (Abdurehim had inquired about his stepmother). Then, without the slightest hint of irony, the letter terminated with the remark that the remaining relatives were “living normal lives”.

Notice from the Chinese government, delivered to Abdurehim Gheni via the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (original and author’s translation).

For Mehbube Abla, an Uyghur woman living in exile in Austria, the same long prison terms were given to her parents, her brother, and two of her cousins. For Gulaisha Oralbai, a Kazakh woman now living in Turkey, the long prison terms were given to her brother and two sisters – a family of writers and intellectuals from northern Xinjiang. For Erkin Emet, a lecturer at Ankara University whom Chinese authorities have deemed a “terrorist organization member”, it was three of his brothers, his sister, and his sister’s husband. For Omerjan Hemdul, a bookstore owner in Istanbul, it was his two brothers, both successful real-estate moguls with assets in the millions. For Qalida Aqythan, an elderly woman and now Kazakhstan citizen, it was her three sons – a tragedy that reportedly put their father on his deathbed. For Dilber Eset, an Uyghur woman in Turkey, it was her brother, her parents, her uncle, and her uncle’s wife.

The examples persist, as barbaric as they are surreal.

If one is to believe the Chinese propaganda department, cases of entire families being detained are supposed to be rare. When asked by BBC reporter John Sudworth during a state-organized visit about the detention of entire families, Xu Guixiang – a senior official from the Xinjiang propaganda department – laughed and said:

“If all family members have been sent to education training centers, that family must have a severe problem. I’ve never seen such a case.”

While Mr. Xu’s reply can be interpreted as true in a certain narrow context (for example, by focusing only on the “training centers” and defining “all family members” very broadly), it is a reply that is either dishonest or ignorant in any pragmatic sense. In addition to the better publicized cases mentioned above, the detention – and, sometimes, sentencing – of multiple family members is not rare at all, and can be observed statistically.

Of the now 3944 documented ethnic-minority individuals reported as detained in the Xinjiang Victims Database (not including victims with low/undetermined-quality entries), 980 (24.85%) have at least one documented detained relative as well. Furthermore, 982 among the 3944 (24.90%) are explicitly reported as being sentenced. For these victims, 230 (23.42%) have at least one relative who is explicitly reported as being sentenced also. In more brute terms, this sample of approximately four thousand – if representative – suggests that:

Around a quarter of the ethnic minorities detained in Xinjiang have been given prison sentences. For all who have been, around a quarter were not the only ones from their families sentenced.

This “quarter-quarter” statistical rule is also inevitably conservative, as those not reported as being explicitly sentenced are reported as being either in camp, in police custody, or in one of the three aforementioned detention types but without it clearly determined which one. Given the reports of some camp detainees being sentenced, the fact that police custody is often a prelude to a prison sentence, and that undetermined forms of hard detention include these two forms and prison also, it is then fact that some portion of the remaining ~75% has been sentenced too. The news just hasn’t reached yet.

There where it has, the relatives abroad – such as Nursiman, Abdurehim, Mehbube, Gulaisha, and Omerjan – have been speaking up relentlessly, and the issue is blatantly apparent when one listens to the testimonies, which have, since mid-2019, been predominantly focused on long and unjustified prison terms.

Ershat Abdul’ehed, a student in Turkey, has been using drawings and caricatures to bring attention to his family’s plight and the crisis in Xinjiang at large. His father and brother were allegedly sentenced to 18 and 10 years, respectively.

Uyghur Pulse, a project that collects video testimonies and uploads them to a dedicated channel on a monthly basis, has, since the August of 2019, amassed over 700 videos of Uyghurs outside of China testifying for their friends and relatives. Of these, approximately 50% mention victims who have been given prison terms, with those that don’t typically focusing on people who have simply vanished, in many cases missing for years. In the most recent monthly batch, which includes testimonies from 24 people with relatives in the region, an astounding 17 talk about relatives who have been sentenced. (In general, few of the testimonies on Uyghur Pulse talk explicitly about people in camps, with almost no such testimonies since late 2019.)

The same trend is echoed in the Kazakh diaspora, where the human rights organization Atajurt has done an unprecedented and colossal job of documenting the crisis in Xinjiang, uploading over 3000 video testimonies to their public YouTube channel. Of the 235 detained Kazakh victims testified for at some point in the past 12 months – the vast majority of these testimonies going through Atajurt – 202 (85.96%) are explicitly reported as being sentenced. Of the remainder, 2 are reported as being in custody, 9 in camp, and 22 in an undetermined form of hard detention.

The prison-term lengths for 312 documented ethnic-minority victims reported as detained and sentenced in late 2016 or after. The mean, excluding the six life sentences, is at around 12.5 years. (Source: shahit.biz; for quality purposes, victims with low/undetermined-quality entries have not been included.) 

The issue is devastating and gargantuan. And still, despite the evident scale and brutality, the victims’ voices continue to fall on deaf years, as almost nothing is being done or said explicitly about the sentencing of so many – a phenomenon not only as massive as the infamous camp system but also significantly more destructive, yet to which the world’s response has been tantamount, essentially, to that of a shrug and sigh.

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