A Uyghur woman who met with a U.S. official in December to discuss the imprisonment of her sister by authorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region has been pressured to stop speaking out about her siblings, while her relatives have been subjected to frequent questioning by police in their hometown.
Kalbinur Gheni, 35, who has been living in the United States since 2019, has used social media and traditional media to search for her sister, Renagul Gheni, presuming that she was being held in a detention facility. She later discovered that Renagul had been sentenced to 17 years in prison for observing religious rites after the death of their father and for keeping religious books in her possession, which she also loaned to others.
A teacher and mother of two children, Renagul, 39, was taken to a “reeducation camp” in 2018 as part of a group of educators and was transferred to a prison this May, according to her sister, Kalbinur said.
Up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in a network of internment camps in the XUAR, where they have been subject to political indoctrination, abuse, and forced labor.
Because Kalbinur had not been able to communicate with her family in the XUAR since 2017, she was unaware of her sister’s detention, and found out about it through friends in Beijing in May 2019.
More recently, Kalbinur contacted what she believed to be the Foreign Affairs Office of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) of Bayingholin (Bayingouleng) Mongol Prefecture, where Korla is located. Someone there told her he was going to the PSB in Cherchen (Qiemo) county and would meet with Renagul.
“After they went, I learned that she had been moved along with a group of women from the detention center in Cherchen county to the women’s prison in Sanji [Changji] on May 5, 2021,” she said.
Kalbinur met briefly with former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Dec. 3, 2020, to discuss the fate of her sister. Since then, the woman’s family based in Korla (in Chinese, Kuerle), the second-largest city in the XUAR, has been interrogated frequently by Chinese authorities, she told RFA in an interview last week.
Authorities have begun to pressure Kalbinur both directly and indirectly through her family members, even going so far as to send a voice message from Renagul asking her to “cease her involvement” in what they called “unsubstantiated” or “untoward” matters, Kalbinur said.
“I explained that even though [the U.S.] was taking real action, the situation had not once improved for Uyghurs back in our homeland [or] for our families; that it was in fact getting worse as time goes on,” Kalbinur said of her conversation with Pompeo.
She said she discussed the case of her sister, noting that the arrests of sentencings of Uyghurs in the XUAR was prevalent.
“This isn’t just happening to my family, it’s also happening to my friends, the people around me, and to the Uyghur people,” Kalbinur said. “We are all living on the earth but seeing the hell of the afterlife. That’s what I said to him.”
Kalbinur stressed that the Chinese government is attempting to control the families of Uyghurs abroad by essentially taking them hostage.
She also detailed some of the many threats she has received, noting that the authorities have attempted to bargain with her by using her family members as bait.
Pressure on the family
Pompeo told Kalbinur that the U.S. knew about the situation, and that it was possible that officials knew even more than she did, adding that the incoming Biden administration would not change the U.S.’s stance on human rights issues
“He said the position of the U.S. government and the American people would never change,” Kalbinur recounted. “Not long after, he declared the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide. After this was publicized, they [the Chinese government] began investigating and threatening me.”
On Jan. 19, Pompeo’s final day as secretary of state, the U.S. State Department issued a statement declaring that China is perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs, a stance that current U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has affirmed.
In the meantime, authorities from the prefecture and country levels went to Kalbinur’s mother’s home in Korla and told her that her daughter was meeting with U.S. officials and that she was speaking out against the Chinese] government, Kalbinur said.
“They tried to use my mother to make me stop what I was doing,” she told RFA. “I told them they could talk to me if they had anything to say to me, and they have been in touch with me via social media ever since.”
The authorities are “trying every way they can think of to get in touch with me, including visiting my mother, sending police to my younger brother, putting pressure on them,” Kalbinur said.
In a message to her sister, Renagul said that two people, likely police officers, who visited her showed her photos of the two siblings together, and told her that Kalbinur was a graduate student studying and working in the U.S. She asks Kalbinur to not be influenced by “bad ideas and bad views.”
“I don’t wish for you to be a bad person or to be sent to a reeducation center like I was,” Renagul told her sister. “I don’t want you to be naive like I was and do something that violates the law. Please remember what I’m saying to you or else I will truly come to look down on you.”
One police officer working on behalf of the government who had contacted Kalbinur accused her of unstable thinking and going back on her word after authorities allowed her to hear her sister’s voice before discussing “other matters later,” referring to the possible early release of her sister.
“We worked so hard, doing everything we could, to let you hear your sister’s voice, thinking it would make you happy, and now you’re going back to your original position. How is your thinking this unstable?” the police officer said.
“It appears that you don’t actually want your sister to get out early,” the man said.
“When you talk, you say sweet things like that you can’t sleep at night because you’re thinking about your sister, but it appears as though all of it is just empty talk. If you keep fighting with us like this, if you keep going on like this, things are just going to continue as they are.”
‘They have one goal’
Kalbinur said that Chinese authorities in the XUAR do not want her to express any different opinions about my sister or information about the detention camps and prisons, and want her to accept that Renagul was sentenced for praying and reading religious books.
“They have one goal: Whether it’s for me or my family back home, they want us to accept the crimes my sister has been accused of,” she said. “They want my family to accept it and they want me to accept it, and they want us not to talk. That’s their goal.”
The Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., that promotes human rights for Uyghurs, issued a report in June describing and analyzing videos released by the Chinese government about the personal and family lives of Uyghurs.
The 57-page report confirms that Chinese authorities force Uyghurs who have been detained to appear on camera and speak out against their relatives abroad, as well as against the broader movement calling for Uyghur human rights.
Reported by Nuriman Abdurashid for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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