“You don’t know how he died; you don’t know when he died. And you can’t even kiss him for one last time.”
These are the words of Uyghur poet Fatimah Abdulghafur. Fatimah lives in Australia. In September 2020 she learned of the death of her father Ghopur Hapiz, almost two years after he had passed. Her father was most likely detained in an internment camp in March 2017; however, Fatimah is unsure of the exact details. She last spoke to her father in April 2016. Since then and until September, the Chinese government had not revealed any details about his whereabouts or condition; not when he was interned, not when he probably received a 10-year prison sentence for his travel overseas, and not even when he died.
The Chinese government’s actions defy description, must shock the conscience, and spur action. Ghopur was an innocent man. One could say he was persecuted because of his Uyghur ethnicity, but that would assume Chinese officials regarded Uyghurs as humans. They do not. The fate of Ghopur and the trauma of Fatimah are one piece in the larger genocide of my people.
If governments or multilateral organizations are lost as to how to tackle the enormity of ending the Uyghur nightmare, one important action to take is to publicly demand China come clean about the whereabouts and condition of Uyghurs reported as missing by their overseas relatives. The mass concealment of this information is a grave violation of rights standards and a moral violence on the Uyghur community.
In the past months, a handful of Uyghurs worldwide have been informed of the death or imprisonment of relatives only after long periods of advocacy and uncertainty. These few cases represent the surface of the issue and come in response to individual requests for information from state and multilateral bodies.
Abduherim Gheni, a resident of the Netherlands, received a response from the Chinese authorities only after submitting a request for information through the Dutch Foreign Ministry. Abduherim’s request listed 19 relatives whose whereabouts and condition remained undisclosed. On September 29, he was informed five of them had been handed prison sentences ranging from three to 16-and-a-half years. The welfare of the other 14 relatives remains unknown.
A few days before that, on September 26, Dr. Sulayman Aziz, an epidemiologist based in the United States, tweeted his brother, Alim, had received a 17-year prison sentence. Sulayman had spent four years seeking information on Alim.
Fatimah, meanwhile, only learned about her father’s death after she reported his disappearance to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in April 2019. China replied approximately a year and a half after she submitted the report. The delay is clearly unacceptable; however, nothing was said to the Chinese government.
We should not give the impression of being grateful to China for revealing basic information about people whose welfare they command; there are too many Uyghurs demanding information and waiting just to hear one word about the fate of their loved ones.
It is hard to imagine not knowing the whereabouts and condition of your parents, children, brothers, sisters, and other people close to you. For many Uyghurs, this has been the reality for over four years while hearing news daily about mass internments, coerced labor, forced sterilizations, and long prison sentences. Clearly, the most destructive force on the Uyghur family is the Chinese government. Uyghurs, like anyone, have a right to family life and unity. By denying us this basic measure of dignity, the Chinese government is denying our very humanity.
The U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules) clearly state family members should be notified in the event of imprisonment, illness, or death of a detained individual. The standards were adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 17, 2015. While I emphatically dispute the pretexts for mass detentions of Uyghurs, China has an obligation to inform family members of the whereabouts and condition of all detained individuals.
International actors, especially states where Uyghurs reside and multilateral organizations, should make every effort to systematically document missing relatives, not just individual cases, and ensure disclosure of their welfare is a priority in relations with China. Otherwise, we are tacitly accepting this barbarity and setting new rules for the behavior of China and other states committing genocide. As Uyghurs, we demand the return of our humanity.
Omer Kanat is executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project.