The scope of China’s enforced disappearances in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is being brought to light by a little-known United Nations agency, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
In 2017, Chinese authorities ramped up a massive campaign of repression intended to radically alter the region’s long-established Turkic-speaking population and their way of life.
An estimated 900000-1.8million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other primarily Muslim individuals were detained in high-security camps that were falsely dubbed “vocational education and training centers” as part of the crackdown. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that torture, harsh questioning, forced medicine, and rape were commonplace inside these facilities.
The Chinese government claims it stopped the camp system in 2019, with the incarcerated individuals having “graduated” and “found stable employment.” Independent research suggests that the camp system has been mostly shut down, with some inmates being freed and others being transferred to jail, so although these statements cannot be substantiated, the trend is clear.
The Xinjiang administration estimates that between 2017 and 2022, 540,826 individuals were prosecuted in the area, and many of them were condemned to jail as a result. In a continent with 25.8 million inhabitants, where 14.9% are members of a minority group, this is an extremely high percentage.
The lives and situations of those incarcerated during the crackdown are mostly unknown. The Chinese government has effectively blocked foreigners from learning about conditions within the country.
This is why the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s (WGAD) recent decisions are so instructive: they provide a glimpse into the lives of those who have been arbitrarily jailed.
The World Group on Arbitrary imprisonment (WGAD) looks into allegations of arbitrary imprisonment across the globe. It makes urgent messages and pleas to governments that have allegedly arrested persons arbitrarily, demanding a response. Human rights breaches should prompt response from governments.
The WGAD has released opinions on three instances involving Uyghurs over the last year, and the details provided in these opinions provide light on the eventual outcomes for people who were given lengthy jail sentences in Xinjiang.
Importantly, the WGAD found that all of the people it rendered opinions on had been victims of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention under international law. Their immediate release has been demanded by the WGAD.
These U.N. views not only reveal that these Uyghurs have been unjustly arrested, but they also provide some alarming information.
Uyghur Cultural Icon Who Was Arrested Without Cause
The WGAD has been looking into the Yalkun Rozi case. In 2018, Rozi, a Uyghur literary critic, was given a life sentence for “splitting the State or undermining unity of the country.” During the years 2001–2011, Rozi was on the editorial board of the Uyghur Textbook Department at Xinjiang Education Press.
Rozi has plenty of company. Many prominent Uyghur cultural leaders have faced unjust trials, despite the fact that the Chinese government has offered no plausible explanation for their detention.
With regards to Yalkun Rozi, the WGAD states, “there is nothing to suggest that Mr. Rozi engaged in or incited violence.” The WGAD effectively called the Chinese government’s reasoning into question when it failed to explain why a textbook editor “authored several books that had been circulating in schools for more than a decade with the full approval of the authorities” and was therefore given a life sentence.
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The Working Group on Arbitrary imprisonment also found that Rozi “was denied appropriate legal assistance during his detention and subsequent trial.”
Since the government has not provided an explanation for Mr. Rozi’s arrest and detention or refuted the very serious allegations made by the source, the Working Group has concluded that Mr. Rozi’s arrest and detention were motivated by discrimination due to his membership in the Uyghur minority and his religion, Islam, in violation of article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Without Any Proof, Trials Were Never Held
The fact that the WGAD found no evidence that any Uyghurs who were condemned to jail had ever been tried is another disturbing discovery.
In a second set of cases reviewed by the WGAD, China provided no information on the whereabouts of incarcerated Uyghur intellectuals such editor Qurban Mamut, entrepreneur Ekpar Asat, and retired physician Gulshan Abbas. With no public judgments and no reason for their arrest, the WGAD determined that “it is unclear if they have indeed stood trial at all.”
The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also found that Asat and Abbas were likely held for reasons unrelated to any internationally recognized crime, such as their overseas contacts. Asat’s participation in the International Visitor Leadership Program in 2014, as mentioned by the WGAD ruling, may have had a role in his arrest. This makes sense, given that the Chinese authorities utilized international ties and travel experience as criterion for detaining Uyghurs at the time.
The decision further adds that Abbas was allegedly imprisoned by officials immediately after a relative living abroad gave a speech alleging widespread detention of Uyghurs. Given that the Chinese government has jailed relatives of Uyghur journalists working abroad, this is also a feasible explanation.
A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Abbas “was imprisoned on charges of participating in terrorist activities, aiding a terrorist organization, and disrupting public order.” However, there is no official record of these allegations or any evidence against her, and the Chinese government declined to respond to a request for information from the WGAD.
Totally Covert Operations
An complete Uyghur family, including father Abdurashid Tohti, mother Tajigul Qadir, and children Ametjan and Mohamed Ali Abdurashid, were the subject of a WGAD ruling in 2022. With no information coming from the Chinese government, the WGAD was “disturbed at the total secrecy which appears to surround the fate and whereabouts” of the four victims.
Uyghurs’ lived experiences in real instances cast doubt on the Chinese government’s statements that it is following the “rule of law” and that it would “fully protect the public’s right to information” in Xinjiang court verdicts.
The Chinese Embassy in Turkey informed Abdurashid Tohti’s family that he was given a sentence of 16 years and 11 months in jail for “crimes of disturbing social order and preparing to commit terrorist activities.” But no proof was ever presented. The “crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities” was given as the reason for Qadir’s 13-year sentence in jail, again with no more details provided.
In the case of Ametjan Abdurashid, the WGAD opinion notes that the government did not dispute the allegation that “prior to the court hearing, he was forced to choose from a list of offenses that are shown to persons belonging to the Uyghur minority and to plead guilty.” This highlights the arbitrary and capricious manner in which the Chinese government has conducted its crackdown on the Uyghurs.
In fact, there is no proof that a trial ever took place, therefore all four persons were probably treated unfairly if one did. The WGAD said, “The charges against them are unknown and the dates of their trials and details of those proceedings, if ever, are equally unknown.” The [Chinese] government might have provided explanations, but it choose not to.
The Day People Vanished
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On August 30, we commemorate those who have been missing due to a government or other agency’s actions. Many organizations in the public sphere have signed an open letter calling on the Chinese government to release missing human rights activists including lawyer Gao Zhisheng and Uyghur and Tibetan environmental activists.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has forcibly removed an unknown number of Uyghur people, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. Years later, families of detainees often still have no idea whether or if their loved ones are still alive.
Abdurashid Tohti, 54, and Gulshan Abbas, 61, both middle-aged men, have been unjustly imprisoned and given very lengthy jail terms in countries where starvation, torture, and inadequate medical treatment are commonplace.
Accusations of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” in the Uyghur area are often brushed off by Chinese official media as “lies.”
Real-world situations, however, make it difficult to continue such deflection.
Can the Chinese government provide answers to the WGAD’s fundamental questions? Does it reveal anything about what happened to Tajigul Qadir and her loved ones? What’s up with Ekpar Asat? Gulshan Abbas, where are you?
The WGAD observes a trend in the Chinese government’s actions, which includes the following: