Uyghur Student Missing, Believed Detained After Return From Malaysia University
Gulgine Tashmemet in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Gulzire
A young Uyghur woman has gone missing after returning to her home in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) from studying abroad in Malaysia, and is believed to be detained in a “political re-education camp,” according to her Germany-based sister.
Gulgine Tashmemet flew home to Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) city in the XUAR's Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture on Dec. 26 last year after completing her master’s degree at the University of Technology in southern Malaysia’s Johor state, her sister, Gulzire recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“When she was in Malaysia she lost contact with the family completely … [so] she decided to go home to see our parents and our younger brother, as she was extremely worried about them,” Gulzire said of her sister, who had recently received a scholarship to pursue a doctorate degree at the school beginning in February.
“I repeatedly told her not to return, but she didn’t listen. She said, ‘I must go and find out what is happening to our parents before I can restart my studies.’”
Gulzire said that Tashmemet had to delete her as a WeChat messaging service contact to avoid attracting unwanted attention from local authorities in Ghulja for exchanging messages with a member of the Uyghur exile community, so the only way she could signal that she had arrived home safely was to change her profile picture to one of their mother.
“I could only see the changes to her profile picture when I signed in to WeChat,” Gulzire explained, adding that she had also asked her sister to change her picture once a week after arriving in Ghulja to indicate she remained free.
“She changed her profile picture to my mother’s after she arrived home, but that picture hasn’t changed since … My mother also removed me from WeChat in January,” Gulzire said.
“When I contacted a friend asking for information [about my family], she informed me that my sister had been taken for re-education, and immediately after messaging me, she deleted me from her WeChat contacts.”
Since April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Over the past year, Chinese authorities have ordered Uyghurs studying abroad in countries including Egypt, Turkey, France, Australia, and the U.S. to return to Xinjiang, and have subsequently detained some of them in the camps, according to reports.
Promise to return
Gulzire said that her sister had last visited home from Malaysia in March 2017 during spring vacation, and “underwent a full investigation” by local authorities at the time.
“A blood sample was taken for the DNA database, and she was made to provide a copy of her passport and other requested documents, along with a letter of promise stating that she would return on the completion of her studies,” she said.
“She said at the time that the political climate was extremely tense, and that she was only allowed to leave the country after signing the pledge to return.”
Gulzire noted that Malaysia is among dozens of countries Chinese authorities say are off limits to Uyghurs because of the risk of “extremist” Muslim indoctrination, and suggested that studying there may have led her sister to come under greater scrutiny.
Before returning home, Tashmemet told her sister that she had informed her university about the situation with her family, and university officials promised that if she didn’t return by the end of February—when she was to begin her doctorate studies—they would make inquiries through the Chinese embassy in Malaysia.
Tashmemet brushed off Gulzire’s concerns about her safety, saying that “even if I were taken for re-education, they would release me after three to six months,” and that “if I don’t return, they will take our parents away.”
“She specifically asked me not to get involved” if anything happened to her, Gulzire told RFA.
“I hoped that I would have received some news by now, but it has been over six months and it has been impossible to find any answers, so I decided to speak to the media and human rights organisations, as there is no point in keeping it quiet any longer.”
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of XUAR residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some Uyghur activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.
Last month, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Chris Smith—the chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China—called on U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to visit Xinjiang and gather information on the detention of Uyghurs, which they termed "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Uighur graduate student goes missing upon returning to China
6 July 2018, 17:56 UTC
Everything was going smoothly for Guligeina Tashimaimaiti, a young, dedicated and charismatic student.
She had just finished her master’s thesis at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (University of Technology, Malaysia, or UTM), and her PhD application had just been accepted by the university.
A brilliant student, she was to graduate with honours – only, she failed to attend her own graduation ceremony.
Guligeina Tashimaimaiti, 31, was the only Uighur student from China at the Universiti Teknologi, where she had started her undergraduate studies in 2010.
She was born in the northern region of Yili, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). During the seven years she studied in Malaysia, her father had made a huge effort to pay for his daughter’s tuition. Guligeina made additional income by working occasionally as a computer programming teacher.
But her life changed when she went back to Yili in February last year. She learned that her father had been sought out by the police and interrogated at length. The family was targeted for having two members living abroad: Guligeina and her older sister Gulzire, who lives in Germany.
“Sammy” (name changed to protect identity), a Malaysian of Chinese descent who is one of Guligeina’s best friends, said that Guligeina told her that the police in Yili had asked her to provide copies of her passport and academic certificates, as well as blood and DNA samples. She was also asked to provide a written promise to return to China at the end of her studies.
Guligeina devoted her life to her studies. She has no political activities whatsoever. A re-education camp experience will only traumatize her.
Gulzire, Guligenia's older sister, who lives in Germany
Her father told Guligeina that the authorities had threatened that if she didn’t return home after graduation, they would send him to prison.
Troubled, Guligeina returned to Malaysia and worked frantically, finishing her degree in record time. She needed to return home as soon as possible, she told friends.
Sammy said people admired Guligeina for her dedication and academic excellence, and also because she was involved in volunteer work.
Sammy voiced concern when she saw Guligeina studying non-stop, day and night, but Guligeina was reluctant to talk in detail about her difficulties. She would only say that her family needed her. Sammy began reading about some of the things going on in the XUAR, and she slowly realized that her friend might be facing some unspeakable trouble.
Guligeina’s sister Gulzire – a resident for 20 years in Germany, where she is married and has two children – says she had heard from friends and neighbours that the government was cracking down on Uighurs with family members abroad.
So, when Guligeina decided to return to Yili upon finishing her master’s thesis, Gulzire and Sammy tried to convince her not to go. Sammy feared for her fate, as she had read about the risks to many Uighurs in China.
Uighur graduate student Guligeina Tashimaimaiti went missing upon returning to China in December 2017.
Preparing to go home
Gulzire says Guligeina was determined, as she was worried that her father might be sent to a “re-education camp”.
Since 2016, numerous detention facilities referred to as “counter extremism centres” or “education and transformation centres” have been set up in the XUAR. These are facilities in which people have been arbitrarily detained for unspecified periods and forced to study Chinese laws and policies.
Guligeina told Gulzire and Sammy that she trusted the government would treat her fairly, as she had never been involved in any political or “separatist” activities.
Her sister says contact with her parents via telephone and WeChat (a popular social media app in China) became increasingly difficult, and many friends started systematically blocking the two sisters on WeChat.
These were the circumstances under which Guligeina planned her next trip to Yili. She reassured friends that she would soon be back to Malaysia.
The last time Sammy saw Guligeina was at the Senai International Airport. She accompanied Guligeina to the plane and asked her to change her photo on WeChat on a weekly basis, as a sign that she was safe.
Guligeina left Malaysia on 26 December 2017. No one has heard from her since.
Guligeina Tashimaimaiti We Chat profile pic
Guligeina's profile picture on social media changed to a dark, black and white, gloomy photo of something that looked like a prison cell. Guligeina changed her profile photo a week after her arrival in Yili. Then her profile photo remained unchanged for a couple of weeks, until one day her background photo was suddenly changed to a dark, black and white, gloomy photo of something that looked like a prison cell.
Her sister tried contacting Guligeina via WeChat, and her friends in Malaysia tried sending messages. They tried contacting neighbours and friends. They were met with only silence.
One neighbour, after much persistence from Gulzire, hinted that Guligeina might have been taken to a “study camp” and then proceeded to block her on WeChat.
Gulzire’s concerns increased when everyone – neighbours, friends, family members – all gradually blocked her one by one on WeChat. “I haven’t one single contact left on WeChat – everyone has blocked me,” she said.
Gulzire said she started hearing about “re-education camps” in 2017. Uighurs who either had family abroad or had returned from abroad were being targeted and sent for “re-education”.
She feared Guligeina was sent to one of those places: “There is no other explanation. She had an academic career and had been accepted as a PhD student. Why would she cut communications with me or her friends in Malaysia?”
Mass Internment of Uighurs
This unexplained inability to account for Guligeina’s whereabouts comes amid a wider crackdown in the XUAR. An ongoing campaign that the Chinese government describes as a move to eradicate “extremism” and “separatism” has led to the mass detention of Uighurs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnicities.
Reports coming out of the XUAR indicate that many Uighurs who live abroad or who have family abroad have been targeted, threatened and sent to various detention facilities upon returning to China.
Foreign media have been reporting on repression going on in the XUAR, but independent coverage in the region is challenging and specific information on the topic of “re-education camps” has been difficult to obtain and verify.
Concerned classmates and teachers
We only hope she can return to her normal life, and come back to study in Malaysia. We are all very concerned.
Sammy, Guligeina’s friend
Guligeina was expected back at her university in Malaysia to start doctoral classes on 18 February 2018.
To this day, neither Gulizire nor Guligeina’s schoolmates and professors in Malaysia have had any news about her.
Her peers, classmates and school advisors have requested the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia to help locate Guligeina. In a letter addressed to the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur, they describe Guligeina as having very good relationship with all of her friends from China and say that she was also close with other international students who came from diverse countries.
“She is very sociable and active in promoting Chinese cultures”, the letter reads.
“We have tried everything to get in touch with her. After decades of hard work and obstacles that she had been through, she was finally admitted by UTM as a doctoral student.”
Gulzire says she feels deeply distressed by not knowing anything about where her sister might be.
“She is quiet, reserved and likes to have a clean surrounding,” said Gulzire. “She devoted her life to her studies. She has no political activities whatsoever. A re-education camp experience will only traumatize her.”
Sammy, her friend and schoolmate, is keeping Guligeina’s master’s degree certificate and the honour award she received from the university but was never able to pick up. “We only hope she can return to her normal life, and come back to study in Malaysia. We are all very concerned.”