Have you ever been arrested in China?
List of Uyghurs captured in China "makes me shudder"
Research by DW and other media has revealed how arbitrarily the Chinese state persecutes Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang: calling abroad, wearing a headscarf, closing a restaurant during the fasting month of Ramadan are banalities that hundreds of Uyghurs from Karakax County are in the autonomous region of Xinjiang have become doomed.
This emerges from the leaked list of prisoners that was leaked to DW and other media. The Karakax list provides information on the criteria on the basis of which members of the Muslim minority were and are interned in Chinese re-education camps.
DW reporter Esther Felden spoke to Jewher Tohti about this. She is the daughter of the imprisoned civil rights activist Ilham Tohti, who was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize in 2019. The economist Tohti taught at Minzu University in Beijing until early 2014. Then he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Deutsche Welle: How did you feel when you heard about the new leak?
Jewher Ilham: Much of the information didn't surprise me. It made me shudder once more. Like when I first heard about the re-education camps. With the new leak it was the same feeling now. I've heard a lot from people who were imprisoned in a camp themselves and who are out again today. Still, it is shocking to now have evidence of someone being targeted by the authorities simply because they have family members abroad. That is unacceptable and tragic.
Do we now have a relatively complete picture of the situation?
I think there is still a lot that we don't know. This happens not just in a city or in a district, but in the entire province. There are hundreds of such camps in Xinjiang and at least a million people are interned there. I am very sure that we can find out a lot more there.
What impact do you think the leaked document might have? How much pressure is it putting on the Chinese government?
I demand an immediate response from the Chinese government. I hope she stops calling it fake news. It is a leak from China and the authenticity of the document has been confirmed. I hope the Chinese leadership has an explanation for this.
What do you hope for from the international community and especially from Germany?
Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people still haven't noticed anything. They don't even know who the Uighurs are. I only experienced that again the other day, when I was in Europe to receive the Sakharov Prize. I spent a day in Berlin. Although there was so much Uyghur coverage around the award, people I talked to couldn't do anything with it. It makes me very sad that the Uighur tragedy is so little known.
Did the "China Cables" published in November 2019 not change anything in terms of public perception?
Because of this leak, China has at least admitted that the re-education camps exist at all. However, the leadership only did so when overwhelming evidence was on the table. Before that, they always completely denied the existence of such camps. And when they finally admitted it, they said they were vocational training centers. The new leak makes it clear that this is not true. This is not about further training. Rather, it is about targeting every single family in the region.
DW also found indications of forced labor in several dozen cases in the list.
Yes, the Chinese government claims that many Uyghurs have completed their training program in the camps. In fact, they may have completed a program there, in quotes. But after that, many were sent to a labor camp. Some had PhDs or Masters, and then they had to go to a factory to make boxes or textiles. I think that most of those affected, who are actually trained for something else, do not want to work under duress in such a factory, especially since the wages are very low.
Her own father was arrested in January 2014. Do you have any idea where exactly he is and how he is doing?
No, I haven't had any information about him since 2017. Since then, my relatives have been forbidden to visit him. Relatives who do not live in Xinjiang no longer travel to the region out of fear. And those who live there do not dare to ask why the government has stopped the visits. Everyone is afraid of ending up in a camp themselves.
So you still have relatives in the region?
Yes, most of my relatives still live there. But my stepmother and my two brothers have always lived in Beijing.
Are you still in contact with family members in Xinjiang?
No, everyone blocked me on their social media channels in 2015 or 2016.
(Editor's note: At this point, Jewher Ilham interrupts the interview briefly and points out that, for safety reasons, she does not want to say more about her family in order not to put anyone in danger.
When was the last time you spoke to your father yourself?
On February 2nd, 2013 we were supposed to travel to the USA together. But then he was arrested at the airport. He was released three days later and placed under house arrest. For the eleven months that followed, we skyped three times a day just to make sure the other was okay. He was then arrested again on January 15, 2014. I spoke to him for the last time the day before.
The Uyghur activist Ilham Tohti, a professor in Beijing, was sentenced to life imprisonment for "separatism".
What is his last known whereabouts?
This is Urumqi No. 1 Prison. My relatives were able to visit him there before 2017.
Do you have any information about how your relatives are doing in Xinjiang and how much they are being monitored?
I know that one of my cousins was imprisoned and sentenced to ten years for storing a photo of my father and one of his texts on her cell phone. She is a nurse and only a few years older than me. She was arrested on the street at one of the many checkpoints.
Police officers sit at a table and demand that they be given the cell phone so that they can install surveillance software on it. My cousin didn't want to give them her phone at first, but they took it from her. And then they found the picture and the article on it. You asked my cousin why she had this on her cell phone and she replied, This is my uncle. Then she was arrested.
This re-education camp in Xinjiang was secured with barbed wire, walls and watchtowers in May 2019.
I do not know where she is. Whether she is in a real prison like my father or in a camp. We couldn't find anything about her on the official pages of the Chinese legal system. There are so many cases where people have been charged, convicted and imprisoned without due process.
When your father was arrested in front of your eyes at the airport, you flew to the USA on your own and you still live there today. Have you ever been to China since then?
No never. My father always spoke in a moderate voice. His main concern was to support the Chinese government in reducing the tensions between Han Chinese and Uyghurs. If someone like him was locked up, I would definitely be put in a camp too. I am attached to my freedom.
Do you think that you are being monitored by the Chinese side in the USA too?
I'm sure. For example, I can use a computer program to find out whether someone has tried to access my email account and from which IP address. Most of the addresses were from China.
Once I was invited to a Uighur wedding. I shared this information with my family in China on social media, asked: What kind of dress should I buy? Shortly afterwards, the authorities in Xinjiang contacted the relatives of the newly married couple there. And told them not to invite someone like me to their wedding. That could be dangerous.
At the end of 2016, the Chinese government began to take increasingly rigorous action against the Uyghurs: since then, an extensive network of labor camps and prisons has emerged.
Have the Chinese authorities ever tried to intimidate you?
No, they never tried to contact me personally. In fact, that surprises me.
How do you manage to keep believing that your father will one day get out of jail?
My father taught me to think positively to the end. You always have to hold on to hope, he told me. And I do that now. I hope he'll be released in the next minute. Or the next day, the next month. I just keep on hoping.
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