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For Ablatt Mahsut, an American dad in suburban Massachusetts, every day inched toward June 10, 2019.
His niece’s two-year prison sentence was supposed to end that day in northwest China. According to a court document, the high school teacher had held materials linked to “terrorism.” Mr. Mahsut was told she simply had a digital copy of the Quran.
June 10 turned to June 11. No word of his niece’s release.
“My worst fear is that my niece won’t be able to leave alive,” he says.
Mr. Mahsut and his family are Uyghurs. China has detained an estimated 1 million or more Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities across a vast detention system, sparking international outcry. Yet many in the diaspora are still demanding answers about their loved one’s whereabouts.
His niece remains incarcerated. Several other relatives have disappeared, or spent months in so-called “reeducation.” He has watched in horror from abroad, as fewer and fewer relatives respond to his texts.
After three years agonizing over going public, Mr. Mahsut’s desperation has trumped his fear. He joins a growing group of Uyghurs abroad finding the courage to speak up, hoping their chorus of voices can save family abroad.
“I should’ve gone public a long time ago.”
Three years ago in northwest China, in a rancid hotel room that reeked of cigarettes and booze, plainclothes police pressed Ablatt Mahsut for answers. He stared at the stained gray carpet as they made him empty his pockets.
The interrogation covered three decades of his life. Again and again, police asked if he personally knew Uyghur activists in the United States. Again and again, Mr. Mahsut said he didn’t. Some 10 hours in, they accused the American father of five of helping a few hundred Uyghurs join the Islamic State group.
“That’s just an outright lie,” he says.
The scene has looped in his mind ever since. Only in recent months has he felt compelled to share his story publicly.
Mr. Mahsut became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago. He lives a quiet life in Franklin, Massachusetts, shuttling between his kids’ soccer games. But in June 2017, a month before his trip to Korla in China’s Xinjiang region, he learned troubling news about his niece there. Mihrigul Abla, a high school teacher, had been arrested for the second time and sent to prison.
A court document reviewed by the Monitor says Ms. Abla possessed “materials propagating terrorism or extremism.” Mr. Mahsut was told that she simply had a digital copy of the Quran.
For the next few weeks, he struggled to sleep, scanning news out of the region past midnight. Family in Xinjiang stopped responding to texts. Desperate for answers, he flew to China that summer to find his niece. But the interrogation upended his plans. He fled without the answers he sought.
Mr. Mahsut and his family are Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group with its own Turkic language and culture. China has detained an estimated 1 million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities across a vast detention system in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Mr. Mahsut says Ms. Abla is still incarcerated. He was told she was briefly taken to a hospital for surgery, and worries that it was to remove her uterus against her will, based on similar allegations from the region’s survivors. Several other relatives in Xinjiang have disappeared.
“I’ve stayed silent thinking that my silence would be able to protect the family,” he says. “That hasn’t happened.”
After three years of agonizing over going public, Mr. Mahsut’s desperation has trumped his fear. He joins a growing group of Uyghurs in the diaspora finding the courage to speak up, hoping their chorus of voices can save family abroad.
“All we have is our hope,” says Rushan Abbas, an Uyghur activist in Virginia. “If we lose our hope, we have nothing.”
A few days after New Year’s in 2019, Mr. Mahsut takes the first step to share his story with the Monitor on a call. In February, he joins a journalist at a small corner table at a Starbucks near Boston. He will only speak off the record. The soft-spoken man also declines to be recorded. Fear has overtaken his life, he says.
Every day inches toward June 10 – the date his niece’s sentence ends, according to a court document. Her uncle Qurbanjan had snapped a photo of the enforcement notice for his brothers in the U.S. Mr. Mahsut nervously deleted it from WeChat soon after. Two years later, he stumbled upon a digital miracle: iCloud saved the photo for him.
He finds it hard to focus on his job. Each media report on Uyghurs or Kazakhs who’ve fled the region conjures his niece’s face. At least twice, he says, his cell phone glows with callers who present as Xinjiang officials. They dangle news of his family in exchange for serving as a spy.
“I never give any information,” says Mr. Mahsut.
Human rights groups have documented allegations of China’s surveillance and intimidation of Uyghurs overseas – such as requests for personal information, offers to work as informants, and threats against speaking out. Since the U.S. has declined requests by the Chinese government to hand over Uyghurs, Beijing has also asked the American government directly for information on the diaspora, says Daniel Benjamin, former U.S. State Department ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism.
“My response was always the same: Give me credible information of terrorist activity,” and then we’ll look into it, wrote Mr. Benjamin, a scholar at Dartmouth College, over email. Ultimately, he says, “nothing came my way.”
Following 9/11, China leveraged the U.S.-led war on terror to rebrand so-called “separatists” as “terrorists.” The May 2014 launch of its “strike hard” campaign against Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities followed violent attacks on civilians that year, allegedly led by Uyghurs.
Western media began covering Xinjiang’s mass detentions in 2017. Beijing first denied the existence of prison-like “reeducation” camps, then said they helped rehabilitate “extremists.” Survivors have alleged political indoctrination and torture. An official database published as a leak in February suggests individuals could be detained for simply having a passport or “too many children.”
A Chinese official said in December that all detainees held in “vocational training” centers have been released – an unverifiable claim. Many former detainees have reportedly landed in formal prison like Ms. Abla.
Researchers say the repression has extended beyond Xinjiang’s borders. More than 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred to factories across the country, according to a report released in March. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s research links forced Uyghur labor to several global brands. In a joint statement, a coalition of concerned manufacturing groups urged the U.S. government to assess the issue.
China has touted the success of its crackdown in the western region. “Xinjiang hasn’t seen a single terrorist attack over the past three years,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying in December. Human rights groups and several governments, including the U.S. State Department, have accused China of systematic human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Some scholars have described the repression as social reengineering or “cultural genocide.”
Increasingly desperate, many Uyghurs in the diaspora feel there is little left to lose in speaking out. Around 1 million Uyghurs live outside China, the World Uyghur Congress estimates. Despite fear of reprisal against their families, the diaspora increasingly talks to the press and demands answers on social media.
Human Rights Watch’s China Director Sophie Richardson says potential reprisal by the Chinese government forces Uyghurs in the U.S. to weigh “whether to exercise their right to freedom of expression here to talk about horrific human rights violations.” Ms. Richardson and other China observers say the launch of the #MeTooUyghur campaign in February 2019 helped mobilize a wave of Uyghurs to go public.
Halmurat Harri Uyghur, a doctor in Finland behind the hashtag, drew inspiration from a proof-of-life video of an imprisoned Uyghur musician that China released in response to pressure from Turkey. Dr. Uyghur was also inspired by the #MeToo movement.
“We are as a whole nation kind of being raped by this communist tyranny,” he says on a call from Helsinki. “We cannot silence ourselves by our own fear while we are living in free countries.”
Ms. Abbas, the Uyghur activist in Virginia, spoke about the treatment of Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities at a Washington think tank in September 2018. Six days later, her sister and aunt in Xinjiang disappeared. Ms. Abbas considers this retribution for her public remarks. Her aunt was released from an internment camp after five or six months, but she still has not heard from her sister Gulshan.
“I’m doubling and tripling my efforts,” says Ms. Abbas, executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs.
Another response by the Chinese government has been to denounce the exile community through propaganda. State-aligned media have presented Uyghurs denouncing outspoken relatives abroad, like Zumrat Dawut from the region’s capital Urumqi. Ms. Dawut survived 62 days in an internment camp and an unwanted sterilization, The Washington Post reported.
Yet a November Global Times video shows two of Ms. Dawut’s relatives in Xinjiang denying her detention, and claiming that the surgery removed a growth on her uterus. Stories like hers amplify Mr. Mahsut’s concerns about his niece’s surgery.
Nearly every Uyghur family Mr. Mahsut knows in the U.S., he says, has at least one disappeared relative. In the car or at his desk, Xinjiang is constantly on his mind.
“The mental pressure is so high,” he told the Monitor about a year ago.
His wife, Ziyoda, an Uzbek-American interpreter who did not want her last name used, watches Mr. Mahsut guard his emotions around their kids. They’re spared most of the news.
“It affects him,” Ziyoda says. “He’s in a country that has power, but he’s powerless.”
Brief reprieve arrives with the spring. In March 2019, Mr. Mahsut helps organize a Nowruz event in Medway, Massachusetts. Millions of individuals worldwide gather with family to mark the vernal equinox, which Uyghurs consider their New Year. Some 60 Uyghurs join the party in a rented room circled by balloons.
“This is the first time I’m a little bit happy in two years,” says a guest.
An Uyghur caterer treats the crowd to a traditional Nowruz stew. Mr. Mahsut dances the sama, gushing with joy. Despite inviting this journalist to cover the party, he still asks for anonymity.
He texts his family Happy Nowruz. No one writes back.
Mr. Mahsut says Shanghai airport authorities detained him when he arrived in China on July 24, 2017. They confiscated his passport and appeared to conduct an extensive background check without explanation. Mr. Mahsut rerouted his travel the next day to evade authorities. He waited out two nights in an American hotel, hoping it would lend some safety.
Xinjiang defied his childhood memories. Security checkpoints paused pedestrians every few blocks. Soldiers and police rounded up Uyghur men on the street and led them into trucks. When Mr. Mahsut finally arrived in Korla at his parents’ front door, police were there to greet him – the first of multiple visits.
Besides trying to track his niece and other relatives, Mr. Mahsut had come to remove his name from the hukou system, or household registry, since he was now a U.S. citizen. He addressed this in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, within a week of his arrival. His interrogation happened the day he returned to Korla. Mr. Mahsut says he demanded to call a lawyer or the U.S. Embassy, but was told the American government already knew of his “crime.”
Mr. Mahsut denied he personally knew prominent Uyghur activists in the U.S. He also denied the ISIS accusation leveled against him by police, who said they had “credible evidence” based on a U.S.-China intelligence sharing agreement.
Multiple regional and security experts told the Monitor that the allegation seems implausible. On the credibility of alleged intelligence sharing, such details are “inappropriate for public disclosure,” an Office of the Director of National Intelligence spokeswoman said in an email.
Around midnight at the hotel in Korla, Mr. Mahsut negotiated his exit by saying he’d return the next day. They handed back his belongings. When he stepped out onto the street, he says, he threw himself to the ground to avoid a speeding car he believes was meant to kill him. Scared for his life, he cut his trip short and slipped out of Korla. He didn’t speak Mandarin, he claimed at the airport. He flashed his American passport.
Safely back in Massachusetts, Mr. Mahsut learned authorities took away 14 of his relatives after his departure. Some spent months in “reeducation.” Public security bureau police also came knocking for him, unaware he had slipped away.
It’s not uncommon for authorities to question individuals returning to China, even if they’ve become a citizen of another country, experts say. “It has happened many times that [ethnic minorities’] new citizenship is not recognized,” says anthropologist Darren Byler, a Xinjiang scholar and postdoctoral researcher at University of Colorado, Boulder.
Mr. Mahsut’s brother Abliz, who lives in the Midwest and is also an American citizen, says he was questioned three times – once in a Korla hotel – on a trip back to Xinjiang in 2015. Public security bureau police accused him of helping Uyghurs travel to Syria, which he denies.
“I was a little bit worried, but not too worried, because I didn’t do anything wrong,” says Abliz Mahsut. “I believed myself.”
June 10 becomes June 11.
No word arrives of his niece’s release.
Ablatt Mahsut frantically calls the municipal police, the district police, the courts. She didn’t perform well, he hears again and again. “She was innocent!” he repeats, demanding more information. Otherwise, he says on a Chinese official’s voicemail, he will see that this makes news.
He learns that Ms. Abla spent four days at a hospital in December – six months after her sentence should have ended – for surgery related to her uterus. She immediately returned to prison.
Dr. Byler, who has interviewed several former camp detainees, says uterine and other illnesses are not uncommon among survivors of Xinjiang’s detention system. But without better access to information from the region, the precise origins of health problems are difficult to determine.
Mr. Mahsut is outraged at the news. To both him and Abliz Mahsut, their niece’s surgery draws parallels to reports by other Uyghur women, like Ms. Dawut. For months the brothers debate the merits of going public, not wanting to endanger any relatives who remained free.
Another blow comes on Oct. 30 with the death of their brother Qurbanjan Mahsut. Though he never spent time in a camp, his family says the Xinjiang University librarian was ordered by the government to archive information on rural Uyghurs in the remote Kargilik county. He worked at least 16-hour days. While his health appeared to deteriorate, Qurbanjan Mahsut told Ablatt Mahsut that he was refused medical help until his final days; the condition for seeing a doctor was not being able to walk.
Survivor’s guilt cuts deep. Qurbanjan Mahsut had been studying for the GRE exam for graduate school, says Ablatt Mahsut, hopeful for an American Ph.D. in anthropology. When he visited the U.S. in 2016, Ablatt and Abliz Mahsut urged their brother to return home to support his family, despite his desire to stay.
His death sparked anger in Ablatt Mahsut. He says he applied for a Chinese visa to attend his brother’s burial in November, against the wishes of his family.
“I was afraid for his life,” says Ziyoda. “Am I going to see you again if you leave?”
Mr. Mahsut was unable to secure the visa in time. He held a memorial in absentia at a Massachusetts mosque instead.
Abliz Mahsut channels his depression into researching the region. His 7-year-old joins him in praying for Uyghurs worldwide three times a day.
“I work alone in my office. Many times I just cry,” says Abliz Mahsut. “Where is the justice?”
A year has passed since Ablatt Mahsut first spoke with the Monitor. Sitting at the same Starbucks table in January, he is transformed.
No longer hesitant, he wants to go on the record, agrees to photos, and even asks about filming a video. He’s decided to risk raising his voice, hoping it brings his remaining relatives home. Mr. Mahsut types up his family’s story in January and mails it to the United Nations.
“My worst fear is that my niece won’t be able to leave alive,” he says at the cafe. He fiddles with his car keys. Soon he’ll drive his son to soccer.
A week earlier, his only relative left to contact via WeChat stopped responding. Now with zero connections to family in Xinjiang, what once seemed reckless now seems right.
“I should’ve gone public a long time ago.”