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How a search tool offers overseas Uyghurs harrowing insights

William Yang Taipei
February 23, 2023

Leaked data and a search tool have allowed some overseas Uyghurs to gain insights into their family members in China's Xinjiang region. Some say they feel a deep sense of guilt while others are filled with fear.

Chinese Uyghurs
A new search tool is giving Uyghurs abroad the chance to learn the fates of their relativesImage: Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR/laif

Last May, a cache of leaked files and photos from hacked official databases in China's northwestern Xinjiang region shed new light on human rights abuses by Beijing toward the region's Uyghur minority.

Images showing teenagers and old women among those detained at the internment camps offered horrific insights into the Chinese government's brutal persecution of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

The files were obtained by an anonymous source who hacked police computers and leaked them to Adrian Zenz, director of China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in the United States.

On February 10, Zenz and his team revealed the full extent of the leaked files, which included information of approximately 830,000 individuals and thousands of images.

In addition to the new revelations, Zenz has also introduced a new search tool that allows Uyghur people in the diaspora to enter their family members' Chinese ID, number or their names in Chinese spelling, to look for relevant information about them.

"This is the information that the Chinese government has refused to make public, and now that it has been leaked to us, we are letting the Uyghurs search as if they were searching a Xinjiang police computer," Zenz told DW. "It's like an imperfect window into the file system of the Xinjiang police."

Leaked photos show abuse of Uyghurs in China

Largest leaked files to date

The new set of data is by far the largest leak of files, Zenz said, and it provides an unprecedented "close-up view" of the campaign of mass internment and other atrocities that have been taking place in Xinjiang since 2016. Most of the data is primarily from Shufu County in Kashgar and Tekes County in Ili and covers the period between 2016 to 2018.

Zenz told DW that he believes the data covers almost the entire population from these two locations, and it shows a large number of people from these places are in some form of detention.

"The evidence shows that the campaign of mass internment really happened," he said, adding that the dataset offers an overview of the scale of the mass internment. "It's more representative than what we have had before."

According to the United Nations, an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been detained in countless internment camps across the province.

Last August, the United Nations Human Rights Office released its Xinjiang Report, suggesting that China's large-scale internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang may amount to "crimes against humanity."

However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry refuted the assessment of the report, calling it a patchwork of disinformation and a political tool serving US and other western countries' interests in containing China through the topic.

UN Uyghur Report

A deep sense of guilt and relief

For some Uyghurs abroad, the search tool allows them to learn about their family members' fate, including when they were arrested, which camps were they sent to and for how long have they been sentenced.

"Twenty-nine members of my family were listed in the files, and with a heavy heart, I had to go through the data, because I think we have to tell the world what's really been happening in Xinjiang," said Mamatjan Juma, the deputy director for Radio Free Asia's Uyghur service.

"I question whether what I'm doing is right or wrong. When I see my family members are persecuted due to what I'm doing, it makes me feel guilty, but it also shows how brutal the Chinese government is. They punish anyone they want by association. It's a very complicated, painful, and haunting feeling for me to live with," he told DW.

Juma's search results show that one of his brothers was sentenced to 14 years while the other two brothers were arrested and detained in the camps at one point. What haunts him the most was learning about his father's death, which was described as the result of multiple complications.

"When I called home in 2017, my mom told me my father passed away 10 days before," he told DW. "Later on, I learned that my father died when two of my brothers were locked up and I didn't know where my younger brother was at the time. What haunted me was that we were not with my father when he died."

Former Uyghur detainees of internment camps

'I lost 40 years of my life'

While the discovery of information about his family made Juma somewhat relieved, Abduweli Ayup, a prominent Uyghur linguist and activist living in Norway, feels like information he obtained from the leaked data has caused him to lose 40 years of his life in his hometown Kashgar. "First, I entered my niece's name and information showed that she was categorized as a fugitive in September 2018, and it also indicated that she would be arrested when she returned to Xinjiang," he told DW.

In 2021, Ayup confirmed that his niece, Mihray Erkin, died in custody 10 months after she was arrested by police. Additionally, he found that his younger sister, Sajida Ayup, who teaches geography at a high school, was charged with being a "double-faced" official. "If someone who works for the Chinese government continues to practice his or her cultural belief, he or she would be accused of being double-faced," he explained.

In addition to his niece and his younger sister, Ayup also found that his brother was sentenced to 14 years in prison. "I searched for information about my cousins, my friends, my neighbors, and they were all arrested," Ayup told DW. "Basically, I lost 40 years of my life in Kashgar. Those are the people I know, worked with or were friends with. For me, without the people I love, my county is empty."

'I won't be able to take it'

When Marhaba Yakub Salay first learned about the new search tool, she only intended to see if she could find additional information about her sister Mayila Yakufu, who was sentenced to 6 and a half years in 2020 under the charges of "financing terrorism." Despite Salay's family providing proof that Yakufu was merely wiring money to them so they could buy a house in Australia, Yakufu remains in prison.

"I searched my sister's ID number, but nothing came up," she told DW. "Then I checked information about all of my family members, and I found information about my niece and nephew. I was in shock. They haven't been taken by the Chinese government, but I'm still concerned about what would happen to them."

According to Salay, her nephew, who was only 12 at the time, was designated as a "Category 2" person who is a "highly suspicious accomplice" in public security and terrorism cases. Additionally, her niece's and nephew's files showed that they may have traveled to one of the 26 suspicious countries including Egypt and Afghanistan.

However, Salay said the only place that the two of them and her sister had traveled to outside of China was Malaysia when they visited Salay and the rest of the family. "The list said they had traveled to all these sensitive countries, but that's totally wrong," she said.

As her nephew will soon turn 18, Salay is concerned that the authorities may take him away at some point.

"I'm not sure what would the Chinese authorities do to him," she told DW. "I haven't managed my sister's situation and she is still in prison. If anything happens to my niece and nephew, I won't be able to take it."

Edited by: John Silk