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Jailed Uyghurs’ relatives forced to attend study sessions in Ghulja during UN visit

Chinese authorities forced the relatives of detained Uyghurs in the town of Ghulja in Xinjiang to attend political study sessions while monitoring their contact with others during a recent visit to the region by the U.N. human rights chief, a local officer police said.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, visited China on May 23-28 with stops in the coastal city of Guangzhou and in Urumqi (Wulumuqi) and Kashgar (Kashi) in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). It was the first visit to the country by a U.N. rights chief since 2005.

Before her trip, China’s state security police warned Uyghurs living in Xinjiang that they could suffer consequences if their relatives abroad spoke out about internment camps in the region, a reflection of the government’s sensitivity to bad press about its forced assimilation campaign that has incarcerated as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the name of “vocational training.”

Bachelet’s itinerary didn’t include a stop in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), the third-largest city in the XUAR and the site of a protest by Uyghurs against religious repression 25 years ago that left as many as 200 hundred people dead.

But, given the city’s history, Chinese authorities there are sensitive to signs of popular unrest, and they redoubled the surveillance and indoctrination programs imposed on the 12 million Uyghurs across Xinjiang, a territory the size of Alaska or Iran.

A village police officer said the “political study session” for the family members of detainees began in mid-April, and that authorities kept a tight rein on their work and social lives. As a result, those residents have been incommunicado with others in their community.

“The ones whose fathers or mothers or other relatives were detained, came to the sessions and spoke at the political and legal meetings organized by the village,” he told RFA.

During the sessions, the Chinese government enforced a rule for Uyghurs to immediately attend sessions whenever a bell sounded and to leave them when the bell sounded a second time, the police officer said. The attendees gathered in the morning on street corners or at residents’ committees to wait for the signal.

“They come with a sound of a bell and leave with another sound of a bell,” he said. “We hold these meetings from 8 a.m. in the morning.”

Organized by the village’s 10 family leaders or police, the attendees had to express their gratitude to the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government and had to promise that they would help protect national security by not sharing any sensitive information with outsiders.

The family members of detained Uyghurs were warned against accepting international calls to ensure that no “state secrets” — meaning in this case the detention of Uyghurs or other measures to repress them — were released.

“We told them not to make phone calls or take phone calls from abroad,” the police officer said. “We told them not to directly tell [people] if they asked on the phone about their detained relatives. We warned them to first ask where they are calling from and why they need to ask for the information. We told them not take those phone calls from abroad in order to keep state secrets.”

The residents were instructed as to how not to expose information on their detained relatives to the outside world and were told how to give “standard answers” to questions raised by anyone visiting from outside China, he said.

Furthermore, if the residents were visited by relatives or friend from other cities, they would be summoned to the police station and asked about what they had discussed with their guests, he said.

“If anyone came to [see] their family for a visit from other cities such as Kashgar, we would take them to the police station and investigate who the visitors were, why are they were here and what they talked about,” the policeman said.

The mandatory political study sessions ended when Bachelet and her team left the region, he said.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.