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The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has further highlighted the desperate situation in which minority Muslim groups – predominantly Uyghurs – have been under intense pressure from China’s Communist Party (CCP) since the spring of 2017, with laws being introduced banning children from speaking their native language in school, men growing long beards and women wearing veils. Hundreds of religious sites, namely mosques and Muslim graveyards, have also been razed to the ground since Beijing’s representatives in Xinjiang introduced so-called anti-extremism bills with CNN having examined satellite images of these sites before and after they were destroyed. Further unsettling accounts have emerged from concentration camps, which have been likened to those of Adolf Hitler’s murderous regime, where at least 1 million Uyghur, Kazaks and Uzbeks have been held in high-security facilities where detainees are denied the right to contact their families and freely practice their religion.
Many are understood to have been detained without having their case heard in court or sentenced following alleged show trials to spend years inside what China calls “re-education centres”.
Inside the hundreds of camps in Xinjiang, detainees have reported having to renounce Islam, show unwavering devotion to communism, while being monitored around the clock under prison-like conditions.
Further harrowing allegations, compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think tank, include acts of sexual violence against women with some “forced to undergo abortions” or “have contraception implanted against their will”.
The CFR think tank said in November that detainees had been targeted for a number of reasons, including travelling to or having contact with people in twenty-six countries – among them Turkey and Afghanistan.
Beijing denies allegations of torture and forced detention, with Xinjiang’s Governor Shohrat Zakir last year calling the sites “the same as boarding schools” and claimed “students” personal freedoms were guaranteed.
The ongoing situation in Xinjiang has led numerous members of the estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs who live abroad to call for the immediate release of family members being detained in the camps or who are among the 80,000 forced labourers that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute believes to be held against their will in factories across China.
Now Uyghurs have said that in addition to the alleged ongoing crimes against their people, that the coronavirus pandemic has again ignited fear for their family members.
In a series of statements, several Uyghurs have told of their families’ plight and their concerns amid the COVID-19 crisis.
These are just some of their accounts.
Jevlan Shirmemet, son of Suriye Tursun
The last time Jevlan Shirmemet spoke to his family was on January 11, 2018.
Now living in Istanbul, Mr Shirmemet is continuing to demand answers from the CCP over the whereabouts of his 56-year-old mother, Suriye Tursun, after she was detained and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
He described Suriye as “a grateful woman” with a love of cooking for her children and travelling.
In fact, it is a visit to see Mr Shirmemet in Turkey that he believes the Chinese government targeted and detained her.
He added: “Because we are Uyghur, I studied in Turkey and my mum came to visit me at my university.
“Because I study in Turkey, all my family members were detained in concentration camps. Because my mother came to visit me at my university, she was sentenced to jail. I cannot think of any other reasons (for the detention).”
The last time Mr Shirmemet, 29, saw his mother was when she waved him off at Urumqi Airport on October 13, 2016 – the last time he left Xinjiang for Turkey.
In the following years Mr Shirmemet’s family were rounded up ad detained in concentration camps as part of what he describes as the CCP’s “Nazi policy”.
His dad Xudayar, an environmental protection office official based in Korgas (Huocheng) county, and his younger brother Erfan – a graduate of the then Northwest University for Nationalities – had “graduated” from one of the detention centres.
But Suriye remains imprisoned.
He described the last time he spoke to his family on January 11, 2018, as “normal, like usual”. But, just two days later, Mr Shirmemet started to notice that his family had started to delete him from WeChat.
After that, Mr Shirmemet said he did not dare contact his family out of fear it could “bring them more trouble”.
It wasn’t until December 2019 that Mr Shirmemet learned that his family had been detained in concentration camps.
He continued: “It was told to me that all my family members were detained in concentration camps in early 2018. My mum was sentenced to five years in jail and my father, Xudayar, and younger brother, Erfan, ‘had graduated’ from a Chinese inhumane ‘Nazi camp’ in December 2019.”
But the situation inside the camps has become even more concerning with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
China has insisted that cases have remained under control since March, with the Government’s official statistics claiming that some 4,600 people have died and nearly 83,000 cases have been recorded.
But the figures have been disputed with US President Donald Trump tweeting last month: “It is far higher than that and far higher than the US, not even close.”
With no cure yet available for the disease, Mr Shirmemet said he fears for the health of people inside the camps and what actions the CCP might take once it is brought under control.
He said: “I’m very concerned, as the conditions of prisons in ‘Xinjiang’ are very poor. My mum’s health was not good and we know that China lied to the world about the coronavirus, just as they are lying about the concentration camps. So, yes, I am very worried.
“I fear the Chinese government will become more aggressive against the Uyghur people after the coronavirus is under control. They still do that (maintain aggression against Uyghurs), they never stopped doing it.”
Mr Shirmemet is continuing to fight for his mother’s release and has been in contact with the European Human Rights Committee, Turkey’s National Council, the International Uyghur Human Rights Project and Amnesty International.
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Shayida Ali, daughter of Elijian Mamut (missing since May 2017)
Uyghur businessman Elijan Mamut, aged in his 40s, disappeared in May, 2017, and his family has not heard from him for three years.
For three years, Shayida Ali has had no knowledge where her father is and what crime he was accused of.
Working in IT in Boston, Ms Ali has only recently started speaking out about the pain of being cut off from her father out of fear of retaliation from the CCP.
Her fears are shared by her immediate family in Xinjiang. Ms Ali’s mum deleted her from WeChat – a Chinese messaging app – and the only messages that filter through are simple greetings, typically sent via cousins or her friends.
“That’s all I have for now,” Ms Ali said.
She added: “Whenever I ask my friends or my cousins ‘where is my father?’ they reply ‘your father is fine’. That’s it, they never tell me anything else.
“When I hear this I think, is it a good sign? Should I imagine it positively? But, one thing bothers me. If my father is free, he is not the type of person who would stop talking to me.
“He would never do that, unless he is in some kind of dangerous place.”
As well as her father, dozens of other men in her family have been taken away by the Chinese authorities and held against their will.
By Ms Ali’s estimate, 80 percent of the men on her mother’s side of the family have been rounded up and detained in concentration camps.
Beyond this, Ms Ali could not say whether they had been moved to work as forced labourers or if they were still in camps.
Years of relative silence and not knowing where her father is has given Ms Ali time to reflect on memories of the two that she said give her comfort.
“He gives me a lot of love so I can stay strong at this time. Whenever I had a hard decision in my life, he wouldn’t say ‘just do that’ like other parents,” she said.
Ms Ali added: “He is the person who would set aside his work and talk to me where he would set out the pros and cons. It was like he was talking to a friend even though I was a thirteen-year-old girl. I will never forget that.
“Those conversations are special to me. And it shows what a kind man he is and how it let me be a good person and gave me a better life.”
The 24-year-old kept a close bond with her father after she moved to the US and they spoke regularly until, suddenly, contact with him was severed in May 2017.
Ms Ali continued: “As we talked all the time I can’t even remember what we spoke about, because I didn’t know it was going to be the last time and that he was going to suffer.”
But, after years of silence, Ms Ali was confronted by a new wave of hopelessness over father’s situation, after the coronavirus first started its rapid spread earlier this year.
She added: “At the beginning of this year I mentally broke down, just like I did three years ago when I lost contact with him. Over these three years I was hoping maybe he would be released, or maybe other family members would get into contact.
“Then, just after the coronavirus outbreak started, there were a lot of videos about life inside the camps and how that situation… and when I saw that, I mentally broke down again.
“After we get control of this virus, we should put more pressure on China so that the concentration camps will finally be closed and that people will finally be released.
“Right now, the Chinese Government is embarrassed in front of the international community and I hope that with the international community asking about what is happening to these innocent people it will shame them into closing those camps.”
Samira Imin, daughter of Iminjan Seydin (Detained between May 2017 – May 2020)
Prominent Uyghur historian and publisher Iminjan Seydin was convicted of “inciting extremism” and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in February 2019, in what Amnesty International called a “secret and grossly unfair trial”.
His daughter Samira Imin did not learn about the sentencing until the tail end of that year and was not provided with any evidence to justify the court’s decision.
Before then, Ms Imin had not heard from her father and did not know his whereabouts since May, 2017, when they lost contact.
The last time they spoke was on Mr Seydin’s birthday when he sent Samira a photo of himself celebrating his birthday, and the final message he sent the following month was a photo of himself exercising outside in a rural area near the town of Hotan.
In the years prior to his arrest, Mr Seydin published some 350 books on a wide range of topics, including child education, psychology and science to name a few.
Ms Imin added that her dad had dedicated himself to cultural exchange and dialogue and had instilled a hunger to learn and think more broadly about the world, all without heaping more pressure on her while she studied at school.
Ms Imin continued: “In China, the third year of high school is quite intense. I would stay until 9.30pm every night to study at school – it’s really intense. And my dad waited for me outside my school for a whole year, and you know it is very cold in winter – and although he had a car it was still a touching moment for me because not many parents did so.
“I got mentally stressed because of all the work and one day I said to him ‘I’m not sure I can do this. It’s hard’. But, unlike other parents he said: ‘Just do your best and don’t worry too much about the rest, so he never pressured me in any way when it came to my life or education. He has always been this example of what a kind, decent and well-educated person can bring to his family and his community.
“He always communicated that I should think more broadly in order to be a well-rounded person – instead of only focusing on what’s in the text books.
“We used to have these father-daughter talks often, and those conversations and his wisdom of life helped me shape my ways, of seeing my own life and helped me overcome the hardships in my life. Specifically, coming to a foreign land like America it can be challenging – at least in the first two years – and he was very supportive of me. He’s my strength.”
Ms Imin’s hours staying back at school paid off, however, and she is now continuing her studies at Harvard Medical School where she said coming face-to-face with coronavirus patients raised her concerns about her father’s health inside the camps.
The CCP has claimed to have rapidly brought the coronavirus under control since the outbreak first began in Wuhan in December, last year.
But experts have questioned the official infection rates and death toll, with the highly-infectious disease being documented in numerous countries as having spread into secure prisons.
Ms Imin added: “Through my work I do see people suffering and I see people, all from different backgrounds and they are all affected by this deadly virus.
“Seeing them being taken to the hospital and where some of them may survive and some of them may not, it adds another layer to my concern for my dad and for my people.
“I think about it especially when I see elderly patients, it directly reminds me of my dad. If you have underlying conditions you are more likely to suffer and given that my dad has high blood pressure it concerns me.”
But it is the end of the pandemic that worries Ms Imin the most. Uncertainty over how the Chinese government will respond has made her feel uneasy about the future of her family and the Uyghur people.
Despite experiencing racism and discrimination in China before the crackdown, Ms Imin admitted she did not believe the situation in Xinjiang would become as desperate as it is now – and it is unknown how the CCP will respond once the pandemic finally comes to an end.
The 27-year-old said: “I didn’t think things would become this extreme.
“Hopefully they can realise they committed a humanitarian crime and stop what they are doing, but I’m not too hopeful about how they would change. There is a huge concern that they might push harder and crackdown more on the Uyghurs and things can become unimaginable.
“There are people in camps, they are already in prison and even for those living outside the camps – they are living in a virtual prison. The mental stress that they experience, it worries me a lot.”
In the days following the interview, China Daily – an English language paper owned by the CCP – shared a video of Mr Seydin some three years after his disappearance where he spoke directly to his daughter.
In what appeared to be a scripted speech, Mr Seydin – who had visibly lost weight and received a buzz cut – spoke of “anti-Chinese forces who deceived his daughter”.
The 55-year-old added he had been “healthy and free” and that any reports he had been detained were “not true”.
Speaking directly to Ms Imin, Mr Seydin said: “Do not believe them (anti-Chinese forces) or do anything they ask you to do. If not for the Communist Party of China and government we would not be living a happy life like now.
“I would not have worked at the Institute and you would not have had the chance to study abroad. All this could not have been possible without the Party.”
Following the release of the video, Ms Imin confirmed she was able to speak with her father and believes he was forced into making the statement.
Luke de Pulford, director at Arise, an anti-slavery NGO, expressed concerns that little had been made by Beijing to stop the coronavirus from entering and spreading inside camps where Uyghur were being held.
He said: “Many of us have been worried that no efforts are being made to protect the Uyghurs in the camps from getting the virus. Our screens are full of state-sponsored images from China showing people clad in protective gear.
“One thing we can be sure about, when PPE is being handed out in China, Uyghurs are at the back of the queue.
“We have seen reports that social distancing is not being observed, and many are being forced to work despite the outbreak. People are rightly worried about the devastation that the virus could cause if it gets into the camps. The tragedy is that it may already have done so – but we just wouldn’t know about it.”
Mr de Pulford added: “The Chinese Communist Party is not waiting for the pandemic to conclude to crackdown on Hong Kong and Uyghurs. In Hong Kong we have seen repeated threats to the constitutional settlement in Hong Kong by Beijing’s representative, and politically motivated arrests of veteran pro-democracy campaigners.
Whereas, for the Uyghurs, an ‘employment scheme’ for ‘exceptional students;’ is being rolled out after a long delay. Behind the euphemisms, this is a state labour programme for Uyghurs who have been brainwashed.”
China has denied allegations of torture, forced labour and the mass detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
The Chinese Government has been approached for comment.
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