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Families of Activists Who Flee Xinjiang Pay a Heavy Price

Chinese Authorities Impose Collective Punishment on Remaining Relatives

The watchtower of a high-security facility near a “re-education camp” where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region on May 31, 2019. ©2019 GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

For members of the Uyghur diaspora – people of Turkic descent who have left the Xinjiang region of China, where state repression runs deep – the decision to speak publicly about arbitrarily detained family members or to criticize human rights violations can be excruciating. Will doing so bring greater protection or greater torment to their family members effectively held hostage by Xinjiang authorities?

In recent years, speaking out has become increasingly risky. Many Uyghurs in the diaspora have been cut off from their family members since 2017, after Chinese authorities stepped up their latest “Strike Hard” campaign and imposed collective punishments on relatives still in Xinjiang.

In September 2018, Washington, DC-based Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas learned that her sister, Gulshan Abbas, 56, a retired medical doctor in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, had gone missing. More than two years later, Abbas found out that her sister had been sentenced to 20 years in prison on “terrorism” charges.

In January 2018, the authorities detained 24 relatives of award-winning Radio Free Asia journalist Gulchehra Hoja, whom the government refers to as a “terrorist.” Her mother, Qimangul Zikri, spent 40 days in an Urumqi jail. This April the regional authorities began describing her father, Abduqeyum Hoja, a retired archaeologist who avoided the 2018 detention only because he had been hospitalized with a stroke, as a “terrorist” too.

Dolkun Isa, who fled China in 1994 and now heads the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, had for years been unable to contact family members inside China. In 2019 he learned that his 79-year-old mother, Ayhan Memet, had died in a “political reeducation” camp. He only learned about the death of his father, Isa Memet, 86, when it was reported on China state media last year. And just last month, Isa learned that his brother, Hushtar Isa, who has been arbitrarily detained since 2017, is now serving a life sentence, also on terrorism-related charges.

Chinese authorities frequently use vague charges of terrorism to silence critics of the government. They have not made public information to substantiate the charges brought against any of these people.

Governments that have expressed concern about the horrific rights situation in Xinjiang should call on Beijing to end its collective punishment of family members, and allow those who want to leave China to do so. It should not be left to these courageous activists alone to fight for their safety.

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