Two brothers of RFA’s Uyghur Service editor Eset Sulaiman have been confirmed detained by authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), with other relatives believed held as part of what is seen as an intimidation campaign aimed at preventing him from reporting on rights abuses.
Sulaiman’s older brother Ehet, the 57-year-old director of the Tengritagh Township Teaching District in Kumul (in Chinese, Hami) prefecture, and his younger brother Ehmet, the 39-year-old head of Kumul’s Tengritagh township, have both been detained since 2018, RFA recently learned after interviewing several local officials.
The two men, and at least five of Sulaiman’s cousins, went missing after authorities in the XUAR launched a campaign of mass extralegal incarceration that has seen up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities detained in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.
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—including systematic rape—and political indoctrination.
RFA recently spoke with Ablet Semet, a researcher based in Germany, who met with Ehet on several occasions beginning in 2007 while visiting Kumul prefecture, where the graduate of Xinjiang Normal University was considered a leading educator. According to Semet, Ehet’s office oversaw a junior high school and several elementary schools, and had branches in Kumul city, as well as Tengritagh township.
Semet said that he had recently received information about the disappearance of Ehet—a father of two and grandfather of one with whom Sulaiman last spoke in 2017—as well as his brother Ehmet and several of their family members through sources in the XUAR capital Urumqi and in Kumul.
“When I heard the news that [Ehet] had disappeared for no reason around 2017, I was very angry and upset,” Semet said, noting that Ehet had worked as the director of the Tengritagh teaching district since 1986.
RFA contacted a Han Chinese staff member at the Kumul branch of the Tengritagh Township Teaching District who initially said there was nobody by the name of Ehet Sulaiman working there. But when pressed for information about who from the office had been arrested or detained, he confirmed that Ehet had been.
He claimed not to know when Ehet was arrested and referred further questions to the Tengritagh Police Station.
When asked whether Ehet is currently serving as the director of the township’s teaching district, an employee at the Tengritagh Police Station responded that he was unsure because “they don’t tell us about people they’ve taken away.”
The employee said Ehet was arrested in 2018, at which point he was removed from his post, but was unaware of whether he was ever put on trial.
“National security has taken him away,” he said. “We don’t know how things have gone. How could we know?”
RFA was unable to confirm whether Ehet is currently being held in an internment camp or in prison.
RFA also spoke with authorities to determine the situation of Sulaiman’s younger brother Ehmet, a graduate of the Xinjiang Education Institute who previously served as the deputy head of Kumul’s Gherbiytagh township and later oversaw Tengritagh. Ehmet and five of his cousins—all of whom had been reported missing since 2017.
An employee with the Kumul Party Committee claimed to have no knowledge of Ehmet, but a staffer at the Tengritagh Police Station confirmed that he was “gone” and had been replaced by a woman named “Sharapat.”
“I don’t know how long he’s been sentenced for,” he said, adding that his case was a matter of “national security.”
“They said they suddenly took him away. But where they took him, why they took him, those are matters they won’t reveal, so we don’t know. The regional level knows, national security [knows], that’s it. No one else knows.”
When asked why Ehmet had been targeted and whether it had to do with Sulaiman’s work with RFA, the staffer replied, “we can’t ask [questions like] that.”
“I have to tell you: deputies and secretaries know about these matters. Not a single other person knows the reason [for these detentions],” he said.
Efforts to reach Sharapat, the new head of Tengritagh township, for comment on Ehmet’s case went unanswered.
Ehmet Sulaiman in an undated photo. RFA
Ablet also told RFA that Sulaiman’s cousins Jelil Osman, 58; Muhammad Osman, 49; Eli Ablelim, 42; Abaljan Ablelim, 40; and Adil Ablelim, 35; had been arrested after going missing in 2017. He claimed that the latter four were sentenced in closed trials to 17 years in prison for acts of “religious extremism.”
Jelil previously served as deputy director of the municipal government in Kumul, head of the prefectural Bureau of Animal Husbandry, and later as director of the Kumul prefectural arts ensemble.
RFA called several offices to inquire about Jelil’s situation, but was unable to obtain any information, while a representative at the arts ensemble where he used to work claimed that he had never heard of the man.
Muhammad, who graduated from Xi’an Medical University in the early 1990s, worked as a director of the Kumul Prefecture No. 1 Hospital for several years. In 2012, he spent six months studying and working at a hospital in Hamburg, Germany.
A representative from the Kumul city Public Security Bureau (PSB) declined to comment on the cases of either Jelil or Muhammad over the phone, stating that they do not live under his jurisdiction.
While none of the relevant officials RFA spoke to confirmed the detentions of Eli, Abaljan, or Adil, they did nothing to refute the claim. A security officer in Kumul’s Qizilyar township said he had “heard that they were taken into custody,” without elaborating.
Targeted despite precautions
According to Ablet, Sulaiman’s brothers in Kumul were placed under strict surveillance in 2011-12 and the two were subsequently “very cautious” when speaking about him, likely for the reason that he lived abroad and worked for RFA.
“At the time, I could sense that the two brothers lived very carefully, so much so that they didn’t even mention that they had a brother who was living outside [the XUAR],” he said.
“This was especially true of Ehemetjan, the younger brother—the fact that he never introduced himself as Eset’s younger brother surprised me even after we spent several days together and even though he knew that I was close friends with [Eset].”
Ablet pointed out that the level of caution the brothers employed ultimately did very little to help Ehmet and his family members to live in safety.
“I can’t possibly believe that their detention was unrelated to them being the relatives of an intellectual like Eset, who is so respected and influential in the homeland,” he said.
Sulaiman’s family members are among more than 50 relatives of RFA’s Uyghur Service staff who have been confirmed held in some form of Chinese state detention, alongside the millions either in the camps or sentenced to prison for “crimes” often for activities deemed “religious extremist” by authorities.
Authorities have regularly said they “do not know” or refuse to comment when questioned over the whereabouts of RFA reporters’ missing relatives.
While Chinese authorities claimed to have shut down all of the region’s camps in 2019 and “graduated” all “students,” tens of thousands of members of the Uyghur diaspora have been unable to speak with or, in many cases, learn the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.