A pair of Uyghur brothers missing for years are being held at an internment camp in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), an official source from their township has confirmed, while their sister has been incommunicado for a month and may have been detained.
Mehmut Memet, 23, and his mother, Ayturem Hudesh, went missing from their home township of Aqyar, in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Uchturpan (Wushi) county, in 2017, Mehmut’s Turkey-based sister Zeytune Memet recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
A year later, when Hudesh emerged from one of the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps—where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since April 2017—Zeytune learned from sources in the region that her brother, 29-year-old Murtiza Memet, had gone missing.
“My mother got out after a year in the camps … and then my older brother disappeared,” she said. “I knew that he’d disappeared, but even after looking constantly for information, I couldn’t find out why.”
“I have a younger brother named Mehmutjan,” she added, using a diminutive form of his name. “He has been gone since June 13, 2017—completely gone. I can’t find him anywhere.”
The two brothers, both fathers of young children, had run a hair salon in their home village of Baza since 2011, according to Zeytune, and were “never mixed up in any political matters.”
Murtiza is a practicing Muslim who prayed five times a day, she said, while Mehmut is “a typical example of a young man in modern society,” and was quick to “run off to wherever something fun was happening.”
Zeytune said she believes that Murtiza may have been targeted for telling her of plans to bring his family to visit her in Turkey—one of several countries blacklisted by authorities for travel by Uyghurs because of a perceived threat of Islamic extremism. Zeytune’s mother had previously traveled to see her in Turkey, where she has lived since 2015.
RFA spoke with a staffer at the Aqyar Police Station who said that the salon the brothers own is located around 500 meters (one-third of a mile) from the station, but refused to answer when asked whether they were being held at a camp or if their salon is still open for business.
However, a second staffer confirmed that they had been detained for content they sent using the messaging app WeChat.
“They were using that and accidentally sent illegal things to each other,” he said.
“They’re in the county seat, in internment. They’re being re-educated.”
Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps in the XUAR, but last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets, however, indicates that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Zeytune told RFA she fears that her younger sister Aynezer Memet, who is a teacher in the XUAR capital Urumqi, may have also been detained, as she has been unable to contact her for a month.
“She’s not even chastising me for asking her so many questions [like in the past],” Zeytune Memet said of her attempts to send messages to her sister. “I don’t know—I’m worried about her.”
In the meantime, she called on the international community to pressure the Chinese government over the release her brothers.
“My family’s most basic rights have been trampled on: [The authorities] have restricted our rights and separated us from one another,” Zeytune said.
“They have completely restricted our right to communicate normally with one another … They have taken away our ability to be with our families in person, to visit one another, to talk online or on the phone—we should have the right to do these things in a free world,” she added.
“I ask the international community for help in securing the release of my brothers.”
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region, which also include the use of advanced technology and information to control and suppress its citizens.
U.S. advisory panel the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) earlier this year released an annual report suggesting that Beijing’s policies in the XUAR may meet the definition of "crimes against humanity"—a designation recently echoed by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.