An organization compiling information on Uyghurs detained in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has defended its findings after officials in the region accused it of spreading lies, saying forcing witness testimonies and making unsubstantiated claims will not undermine its work.
On Feb. 2, the Propaganda Department of the XUAR held a “Press Conference on Xinjiang-related Issues,” during which it alleged that the Norway-based Uyghur Transitional Justice Database (UTJD) maintains a “fake archive” of detainees in the region’s vast network of internment camps. Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the camps since early 2017.
The statement provoked a strong response from activists, former detainees, and others in the diaspora who have provided information about their friends and relatives back home to the UTJD, allowing the group to compile a list of more than 5,000 individuals who are missing and believed held in the camps.
Speaking at the conference, Professor Gulnar Obul, a former administrator of Kashgar University who currently works for the XUAR Bureau of Farm Machinery, testified that she was not in detention, despite being listed in UTJD’s archive.
In September 2018, a staff member at Kashgar University’s administration office confirmed to RFA’s Uyghur Service that Obul had been removed from her post along with three other professors for being “two-faced,” using a term applied by the government to Uyghur cadres who pay lip service to Communist Party rule in the XUAR, but secretly chafe against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.
During a telephone interview, an official in Kashgar told RFA that Obul had been detained for publishing an article about Uyghur culture and history that included her opinions on religious extremism in 2016. The official said that while her views were praised at the time, they were now deemed to “go against government policy,” and that “for this reason, she was accused of being ‘two-faced.’”
Subsequently, an official source in the region told RFA that Obul had been released from detention two to three weeks after the initial report and transferred to work in the regional capital Urumqi.
Also discussed at the press conference was Erfan Hezim—a former member of China’s national youth football team who RFA learned had been detained in February 2018 for “visiting foreign countries” after he traveled abroad to train and take part in matches. Officials with the XUAR Propaganda Department said Hezim is currently playing soccer and that the UTJD, which also lists him in its archive, was promoting falsehoods.
However, sources later confirmed to RFA that Hezim had been released from an internment camp in Dorbiljin (in Chinese, Emin) county, in the XUAR’s Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) prefecture, after a year in detention. He was freed after the Netherlands-based International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPro) expressed concern over his confinement.
Officials at the Feb. 2 press conference said Tahir Hasan—a doctor from Aksu (Akesu) prefecture’s Kuchar (Kuche) county whose disappearance and detention for communicating with “suspicious people” was documented by RFA in September 2019—is working “normally” and rejected the claim he is in detention.
They also claimed that Tahir Talib, Anwar Dawut, Ihsak Peyzulla, and Zoram Talib—all of whom are listed in the UTJD—are not currently being held in detention.
The XUAR Propaganda Department additionally spoke about several individuals who have been sentenced to terms in prison in a bid to justify their punishments.
They acknowledged a 25-year sentence for Akbar Imin, a student of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, who was taken into state custody in 2014 following his teacher’s arrest and subsequent sentencing; a 20-year sentence for Ahat Ghoji, a construction contractor from Aksu’s Bay (Baicheng) county; and a life sentence for Sami Bari, a student who returned to the XUAR from Egypt.
The officials claimed Imin had “founded a mafia group” and that Ghoji had “committed murder,” adding that the inclusion of their names on the UTJD list is “a mistake.”
Erfan Hezim in an official photo issued by Jiangsu Suning F.C. Photo courtesy of Jiangsu Suning F.C.
Forced lies to discredit
Following the press conference, Bahtiyar Omer, director of the UTJD and its associated research and documentation activities, responded that China is forcing effectively captive people who lack freedom of speech to lie about their past, making public claims that counter the efforts of his and other organizations.
He told RFA that Obul had likely been forced to lie about her past, while claims that she, Hezim, and Hasan are currently not in detention does nothing to prove that they were never detained in camps in the past.
“None of the people who made an appearance at the press conference to give testimony, not even Chinese officials themselves, are people who can freely express their opinions,” he said.
“They walk inside the lines that China has drawn for them. They recite things that [China] has written for them.”
Chinese officials have said the camps are centers for “vocational training,” but reporting by RFA and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
Omer noted that regardless of the status of certain individuals, China can no longer deny the existence of the camps due to the overwhelming amount of evidence that has come out of the region, as well as that the policy of extralegal incarceration has led to countless deaths and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of families.
“Even though they’ve let a small number of people go with all sorts of conditions [placed on them] in order to evade punishment from the international community for locking up millions of Uyghurs under false pretenses, China will never be able to hide this genocide,” he said.
Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann (L) reads Liu Xiaobo’s text ‘I have no enemies’ next to the The Nobel Peace Prize committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland (R) sitting next to an empty chair at the ceremony for the Nobel Laureate and dissident Liu Xiaobo at City Hall in Oslo, in a file photo. AFP
Criticism and pushback
The UTJD’s response came as the Norwegian Uyghur Committee, Hong Kong Committee in Norway, Norwegian Tibet Committee, and the Norwegian Taiwan Friendship Association held a Feb. 9 press conference and issued a joint letter calling on Norway’s government to cancel a proposed free trade agreement with China, end the normalization of bilateral relations, and prioritize human rights over economic interests.
Relations between Norway and China had been strained since the Oslo-based Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to late human rights activist and prisoner of conscience Liu Xiaobo in 2010, but ties were normalized in 2016.
However, amid growing global scrutiny of China’s abuses in the XUAR and Washington’s designation of them as “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” last month, Oslo has seen public opposition to strengthened ties with Beijing increase.
China has gone on the propaganda warpath against its critics in recent months but has been forced to play whack-a-mole as new and damning reports continue to emerge about the situation in the XUAR.
Last week, a report by the BBC included interviews with four women who claimed they were “systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured” while held in the internment camp system, which China’s Foreign Ministry and state media quickly dismissed as lies, repeating claims that there are no camps in the region and attacking the credibility of the women profiled in the piece.
On Thursday, Chinese state media reported that the National Radio and Television Administration determined that BBC World News had “seriously violated regulations … in its China-related reports, which went against the requirements that news reporting must be true and impartial, and undermined China’s national interests and ethnic solidarity.”
The regulator said BBC World News would no longer be permitted to broadcast within China and that it would not accept the channel’s broadcast application for the new year. Strict controls meant the service was not widely available to the public in China.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur and Ekrem for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.