Chinese database unveils thousands of people detained in Xinjiang


A leaked list of detention of thousands of Uyghurs has helped Nurshimangul Abdureshid uncover the whereabouts of a missing family member who went missing during China’s crackdown in Xinjiang.

Researchers estimate that more than a million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are held in a secret network of detention facilities and prisons as part of an anti-terrorism campaign ostensibly after a series of attacks.

However, information about the persecution in Xinjiang and those involved are being thoroughly protected by the CCP authorities.

This prevented relatives from contacting detainees or seeking answers to the police, and only a subset of Xinjiang’s court notices were released.

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

It took until 2020 for the Chinese embassy in Ankara to confirm that her younger brother Memethyli and her parents had been imprisoned for terrorism-related crimes.

Nursimangul Abdureshid, who now lives in Turkey, lost contact with his family five years ago. Photo: AFP / Yashinakgul

However, Memetili was found in a prison outside the city of Aksu, about 600 kilometers (375 miles) from her home, according to police lists suspected to have been leaked to Uyghur activists outside China.

According to documents, he was sentenced to 15 years and 11 months in prison. Figure confirmed at the Beijing Embassy in Ankara.

Abdureshid, 33, from Istanbul, where he has lived since 2015, told AFP.

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

A graphic of a recent major report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, China. A graphic of a recent major report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, China. Photo: AFP / John Saeki

A previously unreported database identified by AFP lists more than 10,000 detained Uyghurs in Konasheher County in southwestern Xinjiang, including more than 100 from the town of Abdureshid.

The location of her parents, as well as the location of her older brother, who is believed to have been detained, remain a mystery.

Abdureshid identified the names of seven other villagers on the detainee list. All small business owners or farm workers said they would not have anything to do with terrorism.

“I feel out of breath when I browse through this list,” she said.

The leaked list included each inmate’s name, date of birth, ethnicity, resident registration number, charge, address, sentence, and prison.

It was not possible to independently verify the reliability of the database.

However, the AFP said it interviewed five Uyghurs living outside of China and said that detained relatives and acquaintances were on the list.

It took until 2020 for the Chinese embassy in Ankara to confirm that Abdureshid's younger brother Memetili and her parents were imprisoned in Xinjiang. It took until 2020 for the Chinese embassy in Ankara to confirm that Abdureshid’s younger brother Memetili and her parents were imprisoned in Xinjiang. Photo: AFP / Yashinakgul

For some, it was the first information they had access to about their relatives for many years.

According to the database, hundreds of people were detained in each township and village, most of them from the same family.

“It’s definitely not a targeted counter-terrorism,” said David Tobin, a professor of East Asian studies at the University of Sheffield, UK.

“It’s going to every door and taking a lot of people. It really shows that they’re arbitrarily targeting the community and dispersing it throughout the area.”

People were imprisoned on a wide range of charges, including “collecting a group that disturbed social order”, “promoting extremism” and “causing quarrels and trouble.”

According to government data, the number of people sentenced by Xinjiang courts soared from around 21,000 in 2014 to over 133,000 in 2018.

Beijing denies persecution of Xinjiang Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities Beijing denies persecution of Xinjiang Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities Photo: AFP / Ozan Kose

Many other Uyghurs who have never been charged with a crime have been sent to what activists call “re-education camps” scattered throughout Xinjiang.

In what Beijing calls “vocational training centers,” foreign governments and human rights groups have found evidence of forced labor, political indoctrination, torture and treatment of forced sterilization.

Congressmen from the United States and several other Western countries have described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is due to visit China, including Xinjiang, this month. But activists warn that access will not be enough for an independent investigation into allegations of abuse in China.

In 2017, as Beijing’s “hard-strike” ideological campaign against Islamic extremism intensified, the rate of imprisonment of more than five years nearly tripled compared to the previous year.

Most were delivered in closed trial.

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

“In my father’s hometown of Oghusaq and my mother’s hometown of Opal, you see someone detained from door to door,” Ayup said.

“My cousin was just a farmer. If you ask me what ‘terrorism’ is, he can’t read or understand the word.”

A second suspected leaked police database identified by AFP identifies another 18,000 Uyghurs detained between 2008 and 2015.

Many of them have been charged with dubious terrorism-related crimes.

Hundreds have been linked to the 2009 Urumqi riots, which killed nearly 200. More than 900 people have been charged with making explosives.

Nearly 300 cases cited viewing or possession of “illegal” videos.

A European Uyghur, who wished to remain anonymous, told AFP that he had recognized six friends on the second list, including one who was 16 at the time of detention.

“It broke my heart to see so many people I know,” he told AFP.

The Chinese government vehemently denies persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Instead, it describes the Uyghurs as a legitimate response to extremism and says it has spent billions of dollars on economic reconstruction in poor areas.

In response to AFP’s question on the leaked list, China’s foreign ministry said it had “already refuted the fabricated lies of some organizations and individuals about Xinjiang.”

“Xinjiang society is harmonious and stable … and all ethnic groups fully enjoy their diverse rights.”

But Abdureshid, in a tiny apartment full of plants in Istanbul, tries to take the ordinary life of the Uyghurs out of the confusion, fear, and loss that are now attached to them.

She only recently told her young daughter about a missing relative, and said the leaked list was a sharp reminder of her people’s struggles.

“My pain has doubled,” she said.

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