Written by Jane Perlez
The last time Abdulhamid Tursun spoke to his wife, she was huddled in a Beijing hotel room with their four children, frightened after being evicted from the Belgian Embassy in the dead of night. Suddenly, plainclothes police officers burst into the room, cutting off the couple’s video call.
Tursun says he has not heard from her since. His wife, Wureyetiguli Abula, 43, had gone to the Belgian Embassy to seek visas so the family — from the Uighur Muslim minority group — could be reunited with Tursun, 51, in Brussels, where he won asylum in 2017. But instead of finding protection, Abula and her children, ages 5 to 17, were dragged away after Chinese police were allowed to enter the embassy.
Now the case is raising alarms back in Belgium, where lawmakers are asking how it could have happened and where Tursun’s family has been taken. It illustrates how, two years after China began detaining Uighurs in a vast network of internment camps, the group has limited protections — even from Western democracies — against persecution by the Chinese government.
Even Uighurs who make it to the West have not always been safe. Early last year, Germany mistakenly sent back to China a 22-year-old Uighur asylum-seeker, who has not been heard from since.
On Monday, Belgium said it was sending a special envoy to Beijing to clarify the whereabouts of Tursun’s family. The Belgian government also said its ambassador in Beijing would try to secure passports for Abula and the children.
In Beijing, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Lu Kang, said at a regularly scheduled news briefing Tuesday that he had no knowledge of the case.
China has sent around 1 million Uighurs to internment camps in Xinjiang, the semiautonomous region in western China where most of them live. The figure is equivalent to about one-tenth of the region’s Uighur population.
The government asserts that the Uighurs represent a terrorism threat to China and the world, an argument that is disputed by many Western nations, who see the internment effort as a systematic abuse of human rights. Some Uighurs who managed to leave the camps have told of being subjected to intense indoctrination under armed guard.
Uighurs outside the camps have seen their cities and homes turned into virtual prisons thanks to surveillance technology and a heavy military presence.
The Belgian Embassy’s handling of the case has come under criticism. Under international law, governments are obliged not to send people to countries where they are at substantial risk of being tortured, said Sarah H. Cleveland, a professor of law at Columbia University. Given that Abula and her children are Uighur, it was incumbent upon the Belgian Embassy to assess that risk, she said.
Abula arrived in Beijing at the end of May and on the advice of a nongovernmental organization in Belgium sought visas at the embassy that would allow the family to join Tursun in Brussels, where he works at an electronics company. He had been granted asylum in Belgium in late 2017 after his brother was arrested and placed in a detention camp.
The family group did not hold Chinese passports. But Tursun said his wife had been told by CAW, a Belgian group that helps immigrants, that along with the visas she and the children would each be issued a substitute travel document known as a laissez-passer.
At the embassy, Abula was told that the visas would take longer than she expected. Laissez-passer papers could not be issued because China does not recognize such documents, Matthieu Branders, spokesman for the Belgian foreign ministry, said in response to written questions.
Scared and frustrated, Abula told embassy officials that she planned to remain on the grounds after their offices closed, according to Vanessa Frangville, a professor of Chinese studies in Brussels who has worked on the case.
When Abula settled into the front yard with her children, the staff complained that she was staging a “sit in,” Branders said. They offered to drive her to her Beijing hotel in a diplomatic vehicle, he said. But Abula had already been harassed there by police and was too afraid to return, Frangville said.
Soon after midnight May 29, police arrived at the embassy and disappeared inside, Tursun said, recounting what his wife and eldest daughter told him via the messaging app WeChat as events unfolded.
After about an hour, police drove into the embassy yard, forced Abula and the children into the car and headed for a nearby police station, Tursun said.
It is unclear who called the police to the Belgian Embassy, who authorized them to enter and who asked for Abula and her children to be removed. Asked on several occasions who let police onto the embassy grounds, Branders declined to answer.
By midmorning, that day, police officers from Xinjiang had taken charge of the family and transferred them back to the hotel, where they were left alone for a day.
Then May 31, the plainclothes officers entered the room. “It’s you guys again,” Abula said, in Tursun’s recounting. She recognized them from the ordeal at the embassy, he said. Then her cellphone went dead.
Days later, Tursun learned through a friend that four male and three female police officers had guarded the family as they drove for about 30 hours across China back to their home in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
His wife was now under house arrest, and the electronic equipment Tursun had left in the house had been confiscated by police, the friend told him.
Upset that his family’s plans had gone so awry, Tursun, accompanied by Frangville, met with Josef Bockaert, director of consular affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels.
During the meeting, Tursun asked the Belgians to press the Chinese about what happened to his family, he said. At one point, Bockaert replied that Belgium was a small country and could not risk putting too much pressure on China, Frangville recalled.
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