Authorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are believed to have jailed or detained hundreds of Uyghur academics and other influential members of the ethnic group in recent years.
Members of the Uyghur exile community said the government’s silence makes “clear” that they have been detained in the region’s vast network of internment camps.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the region’s internment camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets has revealed that numerous professors from major research and teaching institutions in the XUAR have disappeared since authorities began placing up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harbouring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in internment camps since April 2017.
RFA recently received information from a source who said that Abdulla Abbas, an ethnic Tajik professor with the Institute for Life Sciences and Technology at Xinjiang University in the XUAR capital Urumqi, had died shortly after his release from a camp.
His family members remain under constant surveillance by the police said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals by the authorities.
RFA contacted several employees from different units at Xinjiang University, but none was willing to answer questions related to Abbas, said that the topic was “too sensitive to answer,” or responded by saying that they did not know.
The report of Abbas’s death and efforts by RFA to confirm the detentions of the Xinjiang University professors came amid information recently shared on social media by the Uyghur diaspora that a missing literature instructor and calligrapher from the XUAR’s Kumul (Hami) prefecture named Memet Eli had been detained on March 22, 2019.
Eli, an instructor at the Kumul Normal Institute who graduated with a degree in literature from Xinjiang University in 1987 and also served as an instructor of calligraphy at the institute’s Experimental High School, had been taken in for questioning by authorities early last year, a source with knowledge of the situation, told RFA.
While RFA was unable to discern any new information about Eli or the Xinjiang University professors, the near-blanket refusal by sources in the XUAR to answer questions suggests that the fates of members of the region’s intellectual elite are closely guarded as state secrets, and that both Hans and Uyghurs live in an environment of fear that requires constant monitoring and censoring of their own speech.
Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, told RFA such responses make it “clear that these Uyghur intellectuals have been detained” in internment camps in the region.
“That is why the Chinese police don’t tell you anything about their whereabouts when asked,” he said.
“If they tell you their whereabouts—including cases of detention and death in the camps—they know their life will be at risk.”
Isa noted that if the intellectuals had not been detained, “there would be no reason for the Chinese authorities to deny knowledge of or lie about their whereabouts.”
“Also, they have been warned by their superiors not to answer any inquiries regarding Uyghur detentions, or face the consequences of revealing state secrets.” (Source: RFA)