The forgotten Uyghurs: call to the Ummah

Uyghur prisoners in Xinjiang internment camps

Uyghurs are a muslim Turkic ethnic group recognized as native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region  in Northest China.

Since 2014 the Chinese government has subjected Uyghurs living in Xinjiang to widespread abuses that include forced sterilization and forced labor. Scholars estimate that at least one million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained in the Xinjiang internment camps since 2017.

Chinese government officials say that these camps, created under CCP general secretary Xi Jinping administration , serve the goals of ensuring adherence to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology, preventing separatism, fighting terrorism and providing vocational training to Uyghurs.

In Xinjiang, the Chinese government has expanded police surveillance to watch for signs of “religious extremism” that include owning books about Uyghurs, growing a beard, having a prayer rug, or quitting smoking or drinking. The government had also installed cameras in the homes of private citizens.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch released a report saying “The Chinese government agents should immediately free people held in unlawful ‘political education’ centers in Xinjiang, and shut them down.” The internment, along with mass surveillance and intelligence officials inserting themselves into Uyghur families, led to widespread accusations of cultural genocide against the CCP. In particular, the size of the operation was found to have doubled over 2018. Satellite evidence suggests China destroyed more than two dozen Uyghur Muslim religious sites between 2016 and 2018.

The government denied the existence of the camps initially, but then changed their stance to claim that the camps serve to combat terrorism and give vocational training to the Uyghur people.

An October 2018 exposé by the BBC News claimed, based on analysis of satellite imagery collected over time, that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs were interned in rapidly expanding camps. It was also reported in 2019 that “hundreds” of writers, artists, and academics had been imprisoned, in what the magazine qualified as an attempt to “punish any form of religious or cultural expression” among Uyghurs.

Despite the Western media’s focus on the ongoing repression of the Uyghurs, there have been few sustained protests from Islamic countries against the internment and re-education of the ethnicity by the CCP. In December 2018, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) initially acknowledged the disturbing reports from the region but the statement was later retracted and replaced by the comment that the OIC “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens; and looks forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.”

 Saudi Arabia, which hosts a significant number of ethnic Uyghurs, have refrained from any official criticism of the Chinese government; Human Rights Watch said on January 10 2022 that Saudi authorities are preparing to deport two Muslim Uyghurs back to China, where they are at serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture. Saudi authorities have held the men arbitrarily since November 2020 without charge or trial.

On a visit to China in February 2019, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, appeared to endorse Chinese government policies in Xinjiang. China’s Xinhua official news agency quoted Mohammed bin Salman stating, “We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security.” Saudi Arabia endorsed joint letters in support of China’s policies in Xinjiang at the United Nations in 2019 and again in 2020.

Turkish president Erdogan tacitly supported China saying that “It is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China’s development and prosperity” while visiting China,  after its Foreign Ministry denounced China for “violating the fundamental human rights of Uyghur Turks”. Some observers have connected the lack of criticism from the Islamic world to Muslim countries’ dependence on Chinese economic aid.

Parallel to the forceful detainment of millions of adults, in 2017 alone at least half a million children were also forcefully separated from their families, and placed in pre-school camps with prison-style surveillance systems and 10,000 volt electric fences.

In recent years, there have been several incidents of Uyghurs being forcibly returned to China in violation of international law. In July 2017, Egypt detained 62 Uyghurs and deported at least 12 to China. In August 2015, Thailand forcibly returned 220 Uyghurs to China. In December 2012, Malaysia deported six Uyghurs to China.

In all cases, those returned appear to have been forcibly disappeared. Human Rights Watch has been unable to obtain any further information from Thai, Malaysian, or Chinese governments as to the deportees’ whereabouts or well-being.

In July 2019, 22 countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany and Japan, raised concerns about “large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”. The 22 ambassadors urged China to end arbitrary detention and allow “freedom of movement of Uyghurs and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang”. However, none of these countries were predominantly Islamic countries.

 In June 2020, former United States President Donald Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which authorizes the imposition of U.S. sanctions against Chinese government officials responsible for re-education camps.

While China continued the brutality towards the Uyghur Muslims, citizens of the ethnic minority group began seeking asylum in other nations. A large number of these people chose to confide in the Muslim-majority nations like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. However, having good ties with China, these countries began detaining and deporting the Uyghur Muslims back to China. Authorities in Dubai and other Islamic countries received extradition requests from Beijing, as per which many exiled Uyghurs were detained, separated from their families and deported to China.

Concerns were raised that while western countries like the US were calling it a “genocide”, the Muslim-majority countries like the Emirates were ignoring the issue and rather deporting the Uyghurs to China.

 The Arab nations were focused on the crucial economic ties they maintained with China, which is a primary consumer of Middle East oil and a crucial trading and investment partner for these countries.

According with Eurasian Times Pakistan, along with 34 other countries came out in support of Beijing in the United Nations, after envoys from 22 governments vehemently lambasted China for the mass detention and human right violations of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.

Mihrigul Tursun, an Uyghur woman detained in China, after escaping one of these camps, talked of beatings and torture. After moving to Egypt, she traveled to China in 2015 to spend time with her family and was immediately detained and separated from her infant children. When Tursun was released three months later, one of the triplets had died and the other two had developed health problems. Tursun said the children had been operated on. She was arrested for the second time about two years later. Several months later, she was detained the third time and spent three months in a cramped prison cell with 60 other women, having to sleep in turns, use the toilet in front of security cameras and sing songs praising the Chinese Communist Party.

Tursun said she and other inmates were forced to take unknown medication, including pills that made them faint and a white liquid that caused bleeding in some women and loss of menstruation in others. Tursun said nine women from her cell died during her three months there. One day, Tursun recalled, she was led into a room and placed in a high chair, and her legs and arms were locked in place. “The authorities put a helmet-like thing on my head, and each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently and I would feel the pain in my veins,” Tursun said in a statement read by a translator. “I don’t remember the rest. White foam came out of my mouth, and I began to lose consciousness,” Tursun said. “The last word I heard them saying is that you being an Uyghur is a crime.” She was eventually released so that she could take her children to Egypt, but she was ordered to return to China. Once in Cairo, Tursun contacted U.S. authorities and, in September, went to the United States and settled in Virginia.

China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying has stated that Tursun was taken into custody by police on “suspicion of inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” for a period lasting 20 days.

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