WASHINGTON - Chinese authorities are continuing to detain foreign nationals of Uighur descent, which experts charge is part of an effort by Beijing to prevent any outside access to Xinjiang province.
VOA interviewed several ethnic Uighurs of different nationalities who said they or their family members faced detention upon arriving in China. The detained foreign citizens were allegedly jailed, put under house arrest or even sent to the so-called reeducation camps, while some others were repatriated to their home countries.
Hankiz Kurban, a Turkish citizen from Istanbul, told VOA that her parents, Yahya Kurban, 54, and Amina Kurban, 51, both Turkish citizens originating from the region of Xingjian, have been detained since Sept.11, 2017, when they were on a trip to operate a clothing business in Urumchi, the capital city of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
I received my mother's voice message asking me, in a trembling voice, to contact the Turkish embassy in Beijing and do something for them," Hankiz said, recalling the moment Chinese authorities arrested her. "It was the last day I heard from my parents."
Working on release
Kurban and her siblings have attempted to find their parents to no avail. The Turkish embassy has told them officials there are still working with Chinese officials to secure the parents' release.
Another Turkish citizen of Uighur origin, Muyesser Temel, told VOA that her brother, Mehmet Emin Nasir, 40, was arrested in late 2017 in Kashgar, where he owned a Turkish curtains store.
We kept calling [the] Turkish Embassy in Beijing, Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara, and Turkish Presidential Office. Their answer has been, 'Wait, we are working on this case,'" Temel said.
VOA contacted Turkey's foreign ministry and embassy in Beijing but has not received a comment.
Responding to a parliamentary question regarding incarcerated Turkish citizens in China, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last April said his government was using its diplomatic means "in every level" to bring them home.
The problems faced by our citizens around the world and the complaints received in this context are closely monitored through our foreign representatives. Every diplomatic and legal tool is used in order to solve their problems, and the necessary legal, economic and social support is provided to our citizens," Cavusoglu said in a written response.
Uighurs are ethnically Turkic and religiously Muslim with a worldwide population estimated to be 12 million. More than 90% of them are believed to live in their ancestral home of Xinjiang in China's northwest region. The remaining Uighurs reside in neighboring central Asian states like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan as well as Turkey and Western countries.
Since 2017 China has been accused of detaining almost 1.8 million Uighurs and other minority Muslim groups in mass incarceration camps where they are forced to abandon their religion. Those outside the camps are believed to be under strict government surveillance with no access to the outside world.
China first denied the detention facilities existed but later said they were only for "reeducation and vocational training" purposes. Beijing has tied its policies in the region to fighting "the three evils of terrorism, extremism and separatism." It recently claimed that all "students" from "training centers" had "graduated" without giving any more details.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in November released several official Chinese government documents it had obtained, revealing that officials in 2017 directed border officials and police to hand-pick and arrest foreign nationals of Uighur descent.
The documents showed that Chinese officials kept track of about 1,535 people from Xinjiang who had citizenship from various foreign nations, with about 75 confirmed to be in China and about 560 whose location was undertermined. Of the 75 "red-flagged" people, 26 were Turkish, 23 Australian, five Canadian, five Swedish, three American, three Uzbek, three Finnish, two British, two New Zealanders, one French, and one Kyrgyz.
Personal identification verification should be inspected one by one, for those who have already canceled their citizenship and for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, they should be deported. For those who haven't canceled their citizenship yet and for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, they should first be placed into concentrated education and training and examined," the document suggested.
Sadam Abdusalam is one of the Australian Uighurs whose family has been stranded in China since early 2017. His wife, Nadila, a Chinese citizen, was applying for her Australian spousal visa in late 2016 when Chinese officials confiscated her passport. Their son, Lutfi, was born a few months later.
My son, even though an Australian citizen, has not been allowed to unite with me in Australia since the day he was born and I haven't seen my son for his entire life," he told VOA.
According to Nurgul Sawut, Campaign for Uyghurs' director of the board for the Oceania region, three Australian Uighur children and one Australian mother are trapped in China so far.
Except for Sadam's son, two other Australian children were taken to China for family visit by their grandmother. An Australian permanent resident, who was placed in house arrest and her passport was confiscated after arriving in China," she told VOA.
Hayrullah Muhammed, an Australian Uighur detained at Chengdu airport in western China in July 2017, told VOA that he was incarcerated in Xinjiang for almost a month before being repatriated. The release, he said, came after the Australian embassy in Beijing intervened.
I was under arrest by special police from Xinjiang at Chengdu airport and was flown to Urumqi and interrogated for at least seven times in three weeks in a detention center before I was let go," he said.
Omir Bekali, a naturalized Kazakhstan citizen of Uighur heritage, told VOA that he was arrested by five Chinese police while he was visiting his family in Xinjiang in April 2017.
They put shackles on my hands and feet and my head was covered by a black hood when they took me," Bekali said, adding that he had lost 130 pounds, almost half of his body weight, because of the harsh conditions in captivity.
Thanks to my wife's efforts to speak up about my disappearance to the media, Kazakh authorities and U.N. office in Kazakhstan, I was released after seven months of going through food and sleep deprivation, beating and interrogation," he said.
Some experts charge that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers Uighur ethnics from foreign countries particularly concerning, seeing them as potential agents from adversaries. Such people, they say, could play an effective role in exposing China's secretive actions in Xinjiang.
Timothy Grose, an assistant professor of China Studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, told VOA that CCP officials hope that introducing stricter rules would intimidate Uighurs outside China into silence.
Conceivably, CCP officials assume that Uighurs who have changed their citizenship have also fundamentally shifted their loyalties away from the party, China, and the Zhonghua minzu and to other social, religious, and/or national collectivities and are therefore deemed potential political threats," said Grose.
As the CCP further restricts outside contact with Uighurs inside China, "officials hope to 'sterilize' the region from outside influence while they construct, unimpeded, a narrative about combating 'terrorism,' 'extremism,' and 'poverty,' he added.
VOA's Ezel Sahinkaya contributed to this story from Washington.