China’s Uighur Problem: One Man’s Ordeal Echoes the Plight of a People

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Ershidin Israil

Ershidin Israil

Who is Ershidin Israil? An Islamic terrorist? A brave journalist? Or a Chinese spy? This much appears to be clear. In 2009 after riots convulsed Xinjiang, the tumultuous northwestern region of China that is home to the ethnic Uighur people, the 38-year-old teacher decamped to neighboring Kazakhstan. Ershidin’s friends and relatives say he was escaping a Chinese security apparatus that has placed thousands of Uighurs under detention, often under the most tenuous of reasons. The UNHCR office based in the Kazakh city of Almaty appeared to agree, granting him refugee status and paving the way for him to resettle in Sweden.

Then came the confusing part. Last year, Kazakh authorities locked up Ershidin, refusing to allow him to depart for a new life in Scandinavia. In May of this year, Ershidin was deported back to China. Beijing has since slapped terrorism charges on him, calling him “a major terrorist suspect” and pointing out that he was, by China’s request, wanted by Interpol. “We have no word of where Ershidin is now,” says his sister-in-law Asiye Kerimova, a Kazakh Uighur whose husband was also briefly detained in Xinjiang. “But I am sure we will never see him again.”

Ershidin’s case has electrified—and in some cases, divided—the Uighur community in Kazakhstan. First in the 1880s and then again in the early 1960s, waves of Uighurs fled Chinese persecution to Kazakhstan, where the locals share Turkic roots. Almaty, only a few hours by car from Xinjiang, boasts five Uighur neighborhoods, which grew during the Soviet era as Moscow was only happy to irk Beijing by giving refuge to a disgruntled ethnic group from China. At least 240,000 Uighurs now live in Kazakhstan, some supporting a separatist movement in Xinjiang from the safety of another country. (In 1933-34 and 1944-49, Uighurs raised the flag of East Turkestan, a self-proclaimed republic that quickly fell to Chinese rule.)

But as China’s economic and political influence over Kazakhstan grows, local Uighurs have suffered. Uighur newspapers and T.V. programming in Kazakhstan have been shut down. A Uighur cultural institute in Almaty was quietly subsumed into another academic organization and stripped of most of its staff. Unable to gain proper licenses from the government, Uighur activists in Kazakhstan are no longer allowed to publicly convene to discuss political issues. Even Uighur restaurants are being pressured to ensure customers aren’t there to feast—and discuss Uighur independence.

The Chinese campaign against Uighurs has only increased since the 2009 unrest, which resulted in the deaths of around 200 people, both from the Uighur community and China’s ethnic Han majority. Dozens of Uighurs were sentenced to death following the unrest, and hundreds of others remain in detention, according to international monitors. China has also used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a largely Chinese-funded security grouping that includes Central Asian nations and Russia, to garner international support for what human-rights groups call systematic ethnic repression.

In June, the SCO, which styles itself as an alternative to NATO, held its 10th anniversary summit in Kazakhstan. Shortly before the SCO meeting, Uighurs with Kazakh citizenship were prevented from leaving the country to attend a Uighur conference in Washington. (The same happened in Kyrgyzstan, with two activists told their participation in the meeting would harm Sino-Kyrgyz ties.) Then Ershidin was deported back to the People’s Republic, a pattern of curiously timed, forcible Uighur repatriation that has been repeated across Central Asia. The U.N., which refuses to comment on the specifics of his case, revoked his refugee status earlier in the year. “We reviewed his case based on new information,” says Saber Azam, UNHCR regional representative for Central Asia. “Had we had access to that information earlier, we would not have given him [refugee] status.”

Ershidin’s supporters say he is no radical. Radio Free Asia believes he is being punished for his journalistic contributions to the Washington-based nonprofit media group, particularly for his reports on the brutal crackdown that followed the 2009 strife. A picture of Ershidin sent by Beijing to the Kazakh authorities to facilitate his extradition shows a man with thick eyebrows and facial hair, the kind of malcontent Hollywood would cast as a terrorist. Yet the original of the picture, which his family shows me from his official ID, portrays a clean-cut man. Someone has doctored the photo. Indeed, Ershidin’s family insists there is no way he would have been allowed to sport facial hair as a government-employed teacher or during his previous stints under Chinese detention, including a six-year jail sentence for “separatism.” “He never looked like this,” says his sister-in-law Kerimova. “When I saw the picture, I almost didn’t recognize him.”

Tensions are so high in the Uighur community in Kazakhstan that some are whispering that Ershidin was actually a secret agent dispatched by Beijing to divide a once cohesive community. How, they wonder, did he escape to Kazakhstan when others weren’t able to traverse the mountainous border? “You might not believe me, but Chinese spies are everywhere,” says Abdulreshit Turdiev, a Uighur community leader, speculating that the UNHCR revoked Ershidin’s refugee mandate after finding out his true identity. (The UNHCR would neither confirm nor deny this.)

But a Radio Free Asia journalist who regularly communicated with Ershidin scoffs at this conjecture. According to the radio reporter, Ershidin did admit while in Kazakh custody that he was asked by Chinese authorities to work as a spy. He agreed, as do many Uighurs in police detention eager to gain their freedom. However Ershidin also told Kazakh authorities that he never actually carried out any espionage for the Chinese state. After Ershidin’s extradition, his brother who is married to Kerimova, the Kazakh citizen, left for Turkey because he was afraid he also could be deported from Kazakhstan. Another brother back in Xinjiang disappeared into police custody in June. “My family is destroyed,” says Ershidin’s brother, Enver, by telephone from Istanbul, home to another sizable Uighur exile community. “For Uighurs, we are only happy when we are all together. Brothers, sisters, parents, lots of children. How can we live like this, like our arms and legs are pulled off our bodies?”