Immigration authorities in Turkey are holding an ethnic Uyghur woman from northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), citing a “problem” with her Chinese passport, according to her husband, who worries she could face detention in a political “re-education camp” if sent home.
Rushengul Tashmuhemmet was detained by passport control officers at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport after arriving there by plane from Kazakhstan’s Almaty city with her young son at around 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, she told RFA’s Uyghur Service by telephone.
“They stopped me here at the airport, saying my passport has a problem,” she said, adding that authorities had not informed her of the specific issue with her documents.
“Please help. I am sitting here with my son and I pray that one day I will be reunited with the rest of my family.”
Tashmuhemmet had been living in Almaty with her husband Omurbek Eli, a 41-year-old Kazakh national of mixed Uyghur and Kazakh heritage from the XUAR, and the couple’s three children.
Eli was arrested by police in the XUAR’s Turpan (in Chinese, Tulufan) prefecture in 2017 while visiting his parents and accused of “terrorist activities.” He was refused legal representation and imprisoned for more than seven months, despite never having been tried by a court of law.
Eli was eventually freed with the assistance of the Kazakh government and returned to Kazakhstan, but left the country for Turkey in May, saying he had faced harassment from local authorities for speaking to RFA earlier this year about his detention in China. His two older children relocated to Turkey soon after to join him.
Tashmuhemmet stayed behind in Almaty while awaiting the issuance of Kazakh travel documents for the couple’s youngest son, who was born in Kazakhstan. After the papers were recently processed, the two of them traveled to Turkey on Sunday, when they were detained at immigration.
As of Monday, Tashmuhemmet and her son were still being held by passport control, according to Eli, who spoke to RFA from outside of the Ataturk Airport, where he was waiting for his wife along with their two other children.
“My wife has a valid [Chinese] passport, as well as a Turkish visa and other related documents,” Eli said.
“One hour after their arrival, I learned that they were stopped at passport control ... So far they are still there,” he added.
“If my wife is deported, my family will be destroyed.”
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in political “re-education camps” throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
The position of China's central government authorities has evolved from denying that large numbers of Uyghurs have been incarcerated in camps to disputing that the facilities are political re-education camps. Beijing now describes the camps as educational centers.
Credible sources suggest that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.
Experts recently told RFA that they have confirmed two previously unverified re-education camps in the seat of Eli’s home prefecture of Turpan through the analysis of satellite imagery, although neither location has been acknowledged by authorities.
Murat Harri Uyghur, 33, a member of the Uyghur exile community in Finland, said a study of imagery found on Google Maps revealed a camp facility accessible by a narrow road near Turpan city’s Qiquan bazaar, a mountainous coal mining area located around 15 kilometers (nine miles) north of the city center.
“There is a factory near the bazaar and the camp is located next to the factory,” he said.
“The camp is one of the most dangerous ones to be sent to, and it’s easy to become ill because of high levels of pollution and poor sanitation. I heard that it was originally used as accommodation for workers, but it was converted into a re-education camp.”
According to Uyghur, the facility was enlarged and had a wall erected around the exterior that includes watchtowers.
“There is a factory there, but it is difficult to know what it produces,” he said. “There are restrictions in place to stop people and vehicles from entering the area.”
Uyghur said that both of his parents are being held in re-education camps, and that his 57-year-old mother Tiemuer Guihuahan—a former journalist for a state-run newspaper in Turpan who is now retired—is detained in the Qiquan facility.
“My mother has been locked up in a re-education camp since April 2017, while my father was taken away in January this year,” he said.
Uyghur said he had been unable to determine the location of his 57-year-old father Wufuer Saitiniyazi, a former translator at the Turpan regional government’s judicial department, who is also retired.
“Some people said he was in Daheyan [a town northwest of Turpan city], but when they went to look for him in the camp in Daheyan, they were told that there was no one there with such a name,” he said.
“All I know is that my father and mother are not in the same camp.”
Shawn Zhang, a Chinese law student in Canada who has identified more than 20 re-education camps by cross-referencing Google Maps satellite imagery with Chinese government construction bids seeking companies to build the facilities, recently told RFA he believes he has confirmed a second camp in Turpan city that was referenced in a report by the Wall Street Journal last month.
“There is another one near the Turpan city detention center, although I haven’t been able to verify it yet from contractor’s documents,” he said.
“I came to this conclusion only by analyzing the satellite images of the building—the layout of the barbed wire and watch towers are completely identical to the picture that was published in the Wall Street Journal.”
Zhang said that in addition to the newly discovered camp in Turpan city, he had also noticed an expansion of one of the largest re-education camps in the seat of Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture, with the addition of a food production facility.
“They are claiming that they are building classrooms and accommodations as part of expanding the camp,” he said.
“In this so-called career training center a food factory is registered … but the registration information is very vague. It is not clear what this company does.”
According to Zhang, the food company could be providing meals for the people held in the camp, or it is “using people in the camp as slave labor.”
“The registration says it invested 20 million yuan (U.S. $2.9 million), which suggests that it is a large company,” he said.
“I think the second possibility [of using inmates as slave labor] is more likely, because if the factory was only providing food for people in the camp, it wouldn’t require such a huge investment.”
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.