Calls for independence from China appeared in a city Aksu hit by a bomb attack last year. Leaflets contained the phrases “Demand independence,” “Resist Sinicization,” and “Uyghur people unite”. The leaflets sparked a city-wide investigation by state security police, who feared the leaflets would arrive in the regional capital of Urumqi ahead of the July 5 anniversary of ethnic riots.
At least six people detained
“Armed Chinese military personnel, including special police, were carrying out investigations of people they suspected of distributing the leaflets. At least six or seven people were taken away against their will in police cars in the middle of the night. It is not clear what has happened to them,” said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
A bomb attack in Aksu last August left eight people dead, including two of the bombers, and 15 wounded after a man riding a three-wheeled vehicle threw explosives at a group of uniformed patrolmen. Four Uyghurs were arrested shortly after the attack and two Uyghur men were later executed for their alleged role in the Aug. 19 blasts.
Raxit said the Aksu authorities had begun a 100-day “strike hard” campaign in the city after the leaflets were discovered, stepping up security patrols around the clock, even in small residential neighborhoods and alleyways.
Pupils sent from Xinjiang to other provinces in China
China authorities try to decrease a spirit of separatism in the region by sending pupils from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region province to other provinces in China. Raxit said that authorities in the northwestern Xinjiang had sent a huge number of Uyghur schoolchildren to be educated in cities elsewhere in China in recent years.
However, students who participated in the program were forbidden from any religious activity, including observing religious festivals. The parents of a student who is found to be carrying out any kind of religious ceremony are typically fined, Raxit said. According to him, the treatment of Uyghur youth was similar back in their homeland of Xinjiang, as well.
“Every year in Urumqi there are high school students who are expelled from school and their parents given steep fines. The reason is that they have attended religious activities at the mosque, or especially fasted during [the Muslim holy month of] Ramadan,” Raxit said.
Expelled from school for attending mosque
Last week ethnic minority Muslim high school students in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang have been expelled from their school for attending a mosque, a Uyghur website reported. Two students of a high school linked to the Hangzhou Normal University were expelled after they were caught in Muslim prayer.
“One of the students was from Ili prefecture, and the other was from Shache county. The school said that they had been engaged in illegal religious activities,” the overseas Uyghurs Online news website said.
It said the majority of pupils at the 650-student high school were Uyghurs.
Children forbidden from attending religious services
Uyghurs, thought to number more than 16 million, are a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim people living in northwestern China and Central Asia. Uyghur activists say that Chinese curbs on the traditional Muslim culture of Xinjiang have left Uyghur youth in crisis, as the education system leaves them ill-equipped to cope in a Chinese-language system.
They say Uyghur children under 18 are forbidden by Chinese law from attending religious services or entering a mosque, and that hundreds of Uyghur youth now wander the streets of Xinjiang’s cities and towns, often tempted by drugs or falling into the hands of traffickers.
Relatives of political prisoners harassed and blacklisted
Even in the worse situation in Xinjiang region (map below) are families of political prisoners. Those families complain they are constantly harassed by authorities, treated as outcasts by their communities, and reeling from financial problems. The families say their lives may be worse than those of their loved ones serving time in jail.
Many of the political prisoners were the sole breadwinners of their households, and their absence has forced their family members to rely on handouts from fellow Uyghurs willing to risk political persecution for assisting them.
Among those financially stricken are Abdusemet and Meryembuwi, who live in Ili prefecture’s Nilqa county. Two of their four sons were jailed in April 2009. A third, who was wanted by police, fled the area and his whereabouts are unknown.
Qurbanjan Abdusemet, 26, was given a 10-year sentence after his sale of books and videos about Islam was linked by Chinese authorities to charges of separatism.
His younger brother, 24-year-old Abdugheni Abdusemet, was sentenced along with Qurbanjan, but was released after serving three years in prison because he suffered from mental problems that his mother Meryembuwi said are a result of abuse while incarcerated. He now lives with his parents, who care for him.
Meryembuwi said Qurbanjan’s youngest brother, 22-year-old Mikhat, was also wanted by authorities but fled the area and may be living in another country. When police could not locate Mikhat, they detained his father for 40 days.
“The government arrested [the elder] Abdusemet because they accused him of not providing a good education to his sons and they said that he helped Mikhat run away. They detained him for 40 days, and during that time he became sick because of abuse in jail,” she said.
“The government has blacklisted us because we are a religious family and because of our political beliefs … we cannot have relationships with other people as it would also give them a black mark.”
She said the couple is also suffering financially because they have not drawn a regular income since Abdusemet was laid off from his job as a bus mechanic 10 years ago.
“We only draw 1,500 yuan (U.S. $230) per month from our pension, but every month we must send money to support our son Qurbanjan in jail, which he uses for food. We also have to take care of the medical needs of Abdugheni because the government doesn’t provide us with insurance anymore [since we are blacklisted].” she said.
Abdusemet said that their lives have become so difficult that they might as well be in prison.
“Right now we are living outside of jail, but I think that if we were living in jail, it would be better … If they arrest us, who cares,” he said, stressing that the plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang needs to be highlighted.
Families rely on charity
Siyitahun, 66, a resident of Tohoqiyuz village in Ili prefecture’s Gulja county, faces a near similar situation. His son Merdan Siyitahun, 37, was arrested on April 14, 2008 and sentenced to life in prison at the same time as Qurbanjan. Authorities said Merdan had committed “acts of separatism” by providing “illegal” religious education to Uyghur children.
“I spend what little money I draw on my son’s legal fees. His lawyer, who was assigned by the government, has taken the money, but has done nothing for him in return,” Siyitahun said.
He said Merdan’s family members and his wife and two children waiting for him at home are constantly harassed by the authorities.
“They rely on charity from the Uyghur community because they have no income, but if the government finds out, they will blacklist the people who are providing it to them.”
Many Uyghurs who are considered political dissidents are forced to rely on donations because they are essentially stripped of their rights to social services. Members of the Uyghur community helping them can land in trouble.