Three years after a harsh crackdown on Uighur protests, dozens of members of the minority ethnic group who disappeared following mass arrests in the wake of the demonstration are still missing.
On a blistering hot Sunday evening on 5 July 2009, thousands of Uighurs gathered for a protest in People’s Square in the western Chinese city of Urumqi.
The demonstrators were calling for a full investigation into the Shaoguan incident, a brawl in southern China 10 days earlier in which two Uighur migrant workers had been killed.
The protestors alleged that the authorities had failed to protect the Uighur workers, or to arrest any of the Han Chinese people suspected of the killings.
While the protest started peacefully, rioting erupted following police violence against protesters.
Venting years of pent-up anger, members of the Uighur community turned on Han Chinese, who in turn retaliated. According to official figures, 197 died in the ensuing violence, most of them Han Chinese.
Eye witness accounts gathered by Amnesty International following the unrest cast doubt on the official version of events and pointed to unnecessary or excessive use of force by police against Uighur protesters, including beatings, use of tear gas and shooting directly into crowds.
Mass arrests followed the disturbances, with house to house searches resulting in the arbitrary detention of hundreds if not thousands of people. Several reports subsequently detailed widespread enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment of Uighurs .
Families seeking information about missing relatives have been intimidated, detained and threatened by the authorities in an effort to stop them petitioning and searching for loved ones.
Fear of retribution
Over the last month dozens of Uighur families have come out publicly with stories of family members disappeared since July 2009, the youngest aged only 16 at the time of his detention. They include families from Urumqi, Kashgar, and Hotan Prefecture in the Xinjang Uyghur Authonomous Region (XUAR).
Those missing include a butcher, a car mechanic, a restaurant manager, a bus driver, a street fruit vendor, a chef, a student, a recent university graduate, a chef/musician, and a recent graduate of a forest design school. Only 19 of these families have allowed their names to be made public. All fear retaliation by the authorities.
It is likely that this group of families is just a small portion of those with disappeared relatives.
Patigul Eli, the mother of one of the disappeared, Imammemet Eli, said she had met at least 30 other families in front of police and government buildings in Urumqi also trying to get information from the authorities about disappeared relatives.
“For almost three years, I have not known where my son is – even whether he is alive or dead,” Patigul told Radio Free Asia.
She heard from two former inmates who shared a cell with Imammemet that her son had been interrogated repeatedly and tortured. She says that after speaking to foreign media she has been kept under constant surveillance and followed everywhere.
Wang Mingshan, the chief of the Urumqi Public Security Department, is reported to have said he had received 300 requests from families for help in locating relatives.
According to one family member, there are more than two hundred families in one county in Hotan prefecture alone with disappeared relatives. Many of these families have been afraid to come forward out of fear of retribution by the authorities. For many families, the financial burden of travelling to Urumqi and Beijing is considerable, nevertheless many have made repeated trips in their hunt for information.
Instead of assistance from the authorities, many family members describe years of threats, intimidation, and even detention for petitioning the authorities and searching for information. The families who came forward publicly with their stories in interviews with Radio Free Asia describe intensified surveillance, threats, and orders to stop speaking to overseas groups.
Some say they are not even seeking redress or compensation from the authorities for the disappearance of their loved ones, but are simply seeking to know if their family members and friends are dead or alive. Some have described how living with the uncertainty has been in many ways harder in the long run than if they had been informed of the fate of their loved ones.
Several UN bodies, including the Committee against Torture and the Human Rights Committee have said in a number of cases that the authorities’ denial of a family’s right to know what has happened to their relatives for months and years violates the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment.
Several of the disappeared did not even take part in the 5 July protests, their families say.
Abaxun Sopur, an Urumqi fruit vendor, made special efforts to stay away from the area where the riots took place,according to his wife, Reyhangul Tahir.
He sold fruit in a different part of the city, returned home that evening, and stayed in the next day for safety reasons. The following day he decided to continue work and called his wife that evening, telling her that police had offered him and his friends a lift, as many streets were blocked.
But instead of taking them home, they were taken to Shenming Police Station near People’s Square. Reyhangul has not heard from him since, although she has relentlessly sought information about his whereabouts.
Like other families who have spoken out, she has been visited by police and warned not to speak to anyone again about her husband.
On the day of the demonstrations, 33-year old Turghun Obulqasim was at work in the kitchen at the Huaqiao hotel in central Uruqmqi. In order to protect his employees, Obulqasim’s manager Salfurat shut down the restaurant and locked the doors after the unrest broke out. He allowed his staff to stay at the hotel for the next few days so that they would not have to risk going out on the streets as the crackdown continued.
But four days later, Turghun was taken away by police along with 70 other employees of the four restaurants located in the hotel.
Obulqasim’s wife Merhaba said that she has gone to the authorities countless times in search of information about her husband, but is given the same answer every time: “Go home, take care of your children. We’ll get back to you.”