China: Families of Xinjiang detainees speak out as they await long-overdue UN report

  • Almost 50 new detainees added to Amnesty International campaign on arbitrary detention, bringing total to 120
  • Family members describe injustice and horror of prolonged separation
  • UN High Commissioner yet to release report on situation despite recent Xinjiang visit

Amnesty International today published heartbreaking new testimony from relatives of 48 ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh people detained in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as it reiterated its call for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to take action.

The outgoing High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, has yet to release a long-awaited report on serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, and has repeatedly failed to recognize the gravity of violations by Chinese authorities in the region. It is deeply disappointing that due to this delay, yet another UN Human Rights Council session will close this week without having been able to discuss the UN’s findings on Xinjiang.

The new testimony gathered by Amnesty International is part of its Free Xinjiang Detainees campaign, which now tells the stories of 120 individuals who have been swept up in China’s vast system of prisons and internment camps in Xinjiang.

“The accounts of these families offer a window into the horrors taking place in Xinjiang, which amount to crimes against humanity. Many people said they have several family members in detention, illustrating the industrial scale of the abuses – one man said 40 of his relatives had been detained,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“The foot-dragging which has characterized the UN response to the dystopian nightmare in Xinjiang adds insult to injury for victims and survivors of China’s campaign of mass imprisonment, torture and persecution against predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang since 2017. We continue to call on the Chinese government to dismantle its vast system of internment camps; end all arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and ill-treatment whether in prisons or other locations; and end its horrific persecution of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

“Chinese authorities must be held accountable, and a crucial step is for High Commissioner Bachelet to publish her long-delayed report that should be presented urgently at the UN Human Rights Council. Her ongoing failure to call out crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations in Xinjiang is an obstacle to justice. It also puts the UN system to shame.”

Almas has appealed on behalf of his wife Buzaynap Abdureshit, who is in prison for having studied abroad: “She was seven weeks pregnant. She was on her way to the hospital to have some checks on the pregnancy when her mom called her saying that there were police at home waiting for her. So, she went back home. From there…no news [from her].”


Mafivet has appealed on behalf of her uncle, Abudumijiti Abudula, who was arrested in July 2016, allegedly for travelling abroad: “To be killed is one thing but living without being in touch with the family is also a very hard feeling.”


Habubulla has appealed on behalf of his brother Zekeriya Emet, who is in prison for having prayed in his restaurant: “I could not sleep for several days… I have been arrested by the Chinese [authorities] in the past. The police are very brutal. They treat us very badly. Only if all the people of the world together will take action to stop China’s oppression, then this oppression will end.”


Minawa has appealed on behalf of her younger brother, Aniver Ablimit, who is in prison for having a family member living abroad: “We want to live [freely] like you. We want to live in our own country. We want to sit [on the same table] with our relatives and eat together.”


Abuduaini has appealed on behalf of his brothers Ablet Ablez, in prison for having violated China’s birth policy, and Abdulshukür Ablez, in a prison or internment camp for having travelled to Turkey: “We [Uyghurs] have committed no crimes, yet we are being detained in camps and we are experiencing lives full of suffering.”


Selamet has advocated on behalf of her sister, Muherrem Muhammed Tursun, who is either in prison or in an internment camp because her son studied abroad and for her ethnicity: “If the Chinese government says, ‘the people there are living happily with normal lives’, I should be able to communicate with my own family normally. My family members and especially my mother who is 70 years old should be at home, not in a camp.”


Abudureheman has appealed on behalf of his wife Peride Yasin (in prison for having lived abroad) and children, and for his mother Aymur Kasim (in prison for having travelled to Turkey) and father Tohti Emet (in prison or an internment camp because of his ethnicity): “On one hand, they [Chinese authorities] detained my father and mother, on the other hand, my brother and sister, my own children, my wife whom I loved and married. They did not leave anyone of my loved ones, I am the only one who remained.”


Gulaisha has advocated on behalf of her brother, Dilshat Oralbay, who is in prison for travelling to Kazakhstan: “There is no court, they just put him in jail, tell him 25 years, nobody knows, I don’t think himself knows the reason. Somebody said because he travelled to Kazakhstan. There is no clear justifications and reason.”


Memet has appealed on behalf of his mother Baishihan Hushur, who is in an internment camp for reading the Qur’an: “My mom was arrested in mid-March 2018 because she attended a religious ceremony in 2013. I felt very sad, I was mentally broken because my mother was ill at the time… I really miss her face, I always imagine I could see her.”


Zohre has appealed on behalf of her cousin, Muhammedali Omer, who is in prison for being able to speak Arabic: “We can’t describe the feelings that we had [when we heard he was arrested]…Why did they arrest him. He was not a guy who would do any bad things. We were surprised that they arrested him. We didn’t know the reason.”


Tursuncan has appealed on behalf of his sister Aygul Ablet, who is in an internment camp for being a successful student and for having a brother living in Turkey: “When I heard my sister was being subjected to such atrocities in camps, I wished it was me instead…At some point I couldn’t take it anymore, I was having bad dreams, I couldn’t stop crying. I had a psychological breakdown. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.”



Families torn apart

Amnesty International recently carried out in-person interviews in Turkey with exiled relatives of 48 detainees. They described how their loved ones had been arrested for “terrorism”-related or other spurious charges, apparently for things as mundane as traveling or paying for their children’s education abroad. Others appear to have been arrested solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity.

Gulaisha Oralbay, a Kazakh woman, described what happened to her brother, Dilshat Oralbay, a retired Uyghur journalist and translator, after the Chinese authorities coaxed him into returning to Xinjiang from Kazakhstan in 2017. His passport was confiscated immediately upon his return, and he was arrested several months later.

“There is no court, they just put him in jail, [and told him it would be] for 25 years,” Gulaisha said.

“I don’t even think [he] himself knows the reason. Somebody said [it was] because he travelled to Kazakhstan, and different excuses; there is no clear justification and reason.”

Gulaisha and Dilshat’s two sisters, Bakytgul and Bagila Oralbay, are also in detention.

Abdullah Rasul told Amnesty International how his brother Parhat Rasul, a Uyghur farmer and part-time butcher, was detained and taken to an internment camp in May 2017. The family have not heard from him directly since then, but in 2018 a reliable source told them Parhat had been sentenced to nine years in prison.

Parhat’s family believes that he was arrested simply because he is an observant Muslim and was doing charity work. Family members said Parhat’s wife Kalbinur and his mother-in-law Parizat Abdugul were also imprisoned. Parhat and Kalbinur have two daughters, aged 14 and 16, and a son aged 11.

“They [the Chinese government] want to erase our identity, erase our culture, erase our religion,” Abdullah Rasul said. “I hope everyone can see clearly what is happening in our homeland.”

Medine Nazimi described how she last heard the voice of her sister, Mevlüde Hilal, at the end of 2016. Mevlüde had been studying in Turkey but, after she returned to Xinjiang to help her ailing mother, she was sent to an internment camp in 2017 and later allegedly sentenced to 10 years in prison on a charge of “separatism”. She is married and has a young daughter.

“When they took my sister, my niece, Aisha, was only one year old,” Medine told Amnesty International. “We were just going about our daily lives, and we were a happy family. My sister was taken for only one reason: it’s because she’s a Uyghur.”

People who speak out about the situation do so at great risk; several family members of detainees described being threatened by the authorities for going public.

Abudurehman Tothi, a Uyghur businessman and activist living in Turkey was interviewed by international media about his wife and mother’s imprisonment and father’s arbitrary detention. He told Amnesty International that afterwards the Chinese consulate in Turkey contacted him and threatened him with detention or death in a “car crash”.


Mountain of evidence

Since 2017, there has been extensive documentation of China’s crackdown against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, carried out under the guise of fighting “terrorism”. In 2021, a comprehensive report by Amnesty International demonstrated that the systematic state-organized mass imprisonment, torture and persecution perpetrated by Chinese authorities were crimes against humanity.

Chinese authorities have used their repressive surveillance state to try to sweep these violations under the carpet, but information continues to seep out of Xinjiang. In May 2022, several international media outlets published a joint investigation, the Xinjiang Police Files, which included a cache of leaked speeches, images, documents and spreadsheets obtained from Chinese internal police networks.

“Despite a growing body of evidence, Chinese authorities are still lying to the world about arbitrary detention on a massive scale in Xinjiang,” said Agnès Callamard.

“Amnesty International supports the joint call by dozens of UN experts to establish an independent, impartial and international mechanism. Such a mechanism must investigate crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations committed by the Chinese government in Xinjiang. The many thousands of people still arbitrarily detained, and their families, deserve truth, justice and accountability.”

The many thousands of people still arbitrarily detained, and their families, deserve truth, justice and accountability.

Agnès Callamard

Bachelet should as a matter of urgency address the demands of the detainees’ families and indicate whether her office has been able to take any steps towards facilitating information on those detained.

High Commissioner’s visit to China

The UN Human Rights Council’s 50th session is ongoing and will end on 8 July. It will be the last with Michelle Bachelet as High Commissioner; her mandate ends on 31 August 2022 and she has announced she will not seek a second term.

At the end of May, in a press conference following her long-awaited trip to China – including a brief visit to Xinjiang, Bachelet failed to acknowledge serious human rights violations in China. Her statement at the end of her visit undermined efforts to advance accountability in the region, instead giving the impression she had walked straight into a highly predictable propaganda exercise for the Chinese government. She admitted afterwards that she could not speak to any detained Uyghurs or their families while in Xinjiang, and was accompanied by state officials at all times in the region.