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Uighurs in US Say China Using Detained Family Members in Forced Interviews

FILE - Uighur activists and their supporters rally in defense of Uighur rights in China, across the street from United Nations headquarters in New York City, March 15, 2018.
FILE - Uighur activists and their supporters rally in defense of Uighur rights in China, across the street from United Nations headquarters in New York City, March 15, 2018.

Uighur community members in the United States are expressing skepticism after the Chinese government media in a series of separate videos showed their families in Xinjiang allegedly denouncing their detention as propaganda.

Those Uighurs say their family members, after disappearing for years, are now reaching out to them via Chinese social media platforms to discourage them from speaking out against the crackdown in Xinjiang region.

One of the Uighurs residing in the U.S., Samira Imin, told VOA that China Daily earlier this month showed her father, Iminjan Seydin, in a video on its Twitter account after he had gone missing in a Chinese detention camp for more than two years. Seydin also contacted Imin via WeChat, rejecting his detention and telling his daughter that she was “deceived by anti-China forces.”

"In our first online conversation on WeChat, after (nearly) three years, he is demanding me to delete my posts in the past and not publish anything on social media apps such as Twitter," Imin, a 27-year-old medical worker in Boston, told VOA. She said she is convinced that her father has been coerced by Chinese authorities to ask her halt pro-Uighur activism.

“The Chinese government’s attempt to control my actions and thoughts through my father is not acceptable,” she said, adding “I want my father to be free from all types of state surveillance. I want to have normal conversations with him.”

'Inciting extremism'

Before his arrest in mid-2017, Seydin was a full-time professor of Chinese history at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in the region’s capital Urumqi. At the same time, he owned a publishing organization called the Imin Publishing House, which since its inception in 2012, had printed nearly 50 books on topics such as language, education, technology and psychology.

Imin said she did not know the whereabouts of her father for months until 2019 when her contacts in Beijing said he was put in a so-called “re-education camp.” She was told Seydin was sentenced to 15 years in prison for "inciting extremism" in a secret trial.

Imin has since garnered the power of social media to raise awareness about the Uighur plight and demand her father’s release who she says was arrested for publishing an Arabic grammar book.

Imin is not the only Uighur abroad who has found her family on Chinese media after being missing for years.

Kuzzat Altay, 36, found his father, Memet Kadir, in a video by China’s state media Global Times in January. The 68-year-old had been missing for about two years.

“For up to two years, I just didn’t know if he was alive or not. All of a sudden, I see my father denouncing me on Chinese state TV saying that I should stop my activism or he would sever his blood relation with me,” Altay said, adding that his father looked half paralyzed and his statements were staged.

The young Uighur activist fled Xinjiang in 2005 and moved to McLean, Virginia where he heads the Uighur American Association. He started his activism after his father, in a voice message in February 2018, told him that the Chinese police were taking him to an internment camp in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi.

‘My father did need skills’

“My father was a healthy retired businessman and he didn’t need any skills training to find a job as China claims what the camps are for. He was capable of creating jobs, not in need of a job. But they took him in anyway,” Altay told VOA.

Confident that his father has been compelled to appear on the Chinese media, he said, “I ask China to let my father come to the U.S. and testify as he did in Global Times video.”

Rights organizations say China since late 2016 has started a systematic campaign of massive surveillance and arbitrary detention of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the northwest region of Xinjiang. The U.N. earlier this year demanded 'unfettered access' to the region where as many as a million people could be held.

The Chinese government, however, is rejecting the accusations saying it is running a “transformation-through-education centers” campaign in Xinjiang. Chinese officials have called the camps “vocational training” facilities for people who were exposed to “ideas of extremism and terrorism.” In other occasions, the officials have said the camps teach the people skills needed to undertake new jobs.

Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific Advocacy Manager at Amnesty International USA, told VOA that the growing number of videos coming out of Xinjiang are the latest “harassment” effort by Beijing against vocal Uighurs abroad who are lobbying for their people in Xinjiang. He said his organization has documented many such cases which are “really chilling and extremely concerning.”

“They are just a part of a larger pattern where China has used forced confessions and coercion of family members to silence activists,” said Bencosme.

Online harassment

According to Louisa Greve, a global advocacy director for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the attempt to undermine Uighur voices abroad is already taking a toll on the activists. She said they are “secondary survivors of this total persecution” and many of them are suffering from trauma.

“They are always being put in a dilemma of fear and guilt of whether they are causing more suffering to their family in China by speaking out. It is despicable,” said Greve.

Among the Uighurs who remained quiet for a while after she lost contact with her mother in September 2018 is Ziba Murat. She told VOA that she initially thought inaction was the best she could do for her mother. Her relatives in Xinjiang told her that her online activism could prove more harmful to their cause.

“Staying silent became unbearable,” said the Tampa, Florida-based 34-year-old corporate analyst and mother of a toddler. She said her family has yet to hear about her mother, Gulshan Abbas, who was a retired dermatologist from a hospital in Urumqi before suddenly disappearing in late 2018.

“There is still that fear inside me that I might put somebody back home in jeopardy. But If I don’t speak out then who will speak out for my mom…I will speak out more and more until they release her,” she told VOA.