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‘Publicity gives us protection,’ says whistleblower in China crackdown on Uighur Muslims

A Uighur woman living in the Netherlands says she helped leak secret Chinese government documents that shed light on how Beijing runs mass detention camps for Muslim ethnic minorities.

By: New York Times | London | Published: December 8, 2019 8:19:40 am
Uighurs China detention camps, China Uighurs Muslims detention, Muslims detention camps in China, China Uighurs Muslims New York Times report FILE — An internment camp near Harmony New Village, a farming settlement in the Xinjiang region of China (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

Written by Claire Moses and Elian Peltier

A Uighur woman living in the Netherlands said she helped leak secret Chinese government documents that shed light on how Beijing runs mass detention camps for Muslim ethnic minorities, recounting how she has lived in fear after receiving death threats for speaking out.

Asiye Abdulaheb, 46, told a Dutch newspaper that she was involved in the release of 24 pages of documents published by Western news outlets last month and was speaking out now to protect relatives from retaliation.

The documents, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and examined by journalists around the world, followed an earlier leak of 403 pages of internal papers to The New York Times that described how authorities created, managed and justified the continuing crackdown on as many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs.

Abdulaheb said she had decided to speak about her involvement in the leak even though it might endanger her or her family.

“I can handle the pressure, but I’m afraid that something will happen to my children and their father,” she told the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. “We no longer sleep. We need more protection. Publicity gives us protection.”

Abdulaheb, who speaks Mandarin, said that she had worked for Chinese state institutions and that she moved to the Netherlands in 2009.

In an interview Saturday, she confirmed that she received and helped leak the 24 pages, but she did not explain how she obtained the documents.

The Dutch newspaper reported that Abdulaheb had “shaken with nerves” when she acquired the 24 pages of internal Chinese documents on her laptop this year. After she posted a screenshot of one of the documents on Twitter, a German researcher on Xinjiang, China — Adrian Zenz — reached out to her and confirmed the authenticity of the documents.

Those documents were later acquired by various news organizations, though Abdulaheb did not say how.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an independent nonprofit based in Washington, later partnered with 17 other organizations, including The New York Times, to publish revelations on internment camps based on the 24-page set of documents.

That article came a week after the Times published a report based on 403 leaked pages that shed light on the origins and expansion of the crackdown in Xinjiang. The Times report said the source of its documents was a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity.

In a statement Saturday, the consortium declined to say whether Abdulaheb was the source for its report. “ICIJ does not comment on its sources,” it said.

Uighur Muslims, China Uighur Muslims, Uighur Muslims China, Opinion, Indian Express FILE — A muezzin sounds the call to prayer from the roof of a mosque in Kashgar, in China’s far western province of Xinjiang, Dec. 14, 2015. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)

The two exposés sharpened international debate over the Chinese government’s intense crackdown across the region. Since 2017, the Chinese Communist Party has overseen a wave of mass detentions in Xinjiang, driving up to 1 million members of largely Muslim minority groups, especially Uighurs, into indoctrination camps intended to drastically weaken their religious attachments and make them loyal to the party.

Initially, Chinese officials brushed away questions and reports about the detentions. But late last year, Beijing shifted its response: Chinese authorities have since acknowledged the existence of the program but defended the camps as job training centers that teach language and practical skills and that also warn people of the dangers of religious extremism.

Earlier this year, senior officials in Xinjiang said that many people had been released from the centers but gave no clear numbers to back up that assertion, which has been met with widespread skepticism among foreign experts and Uighurs abroad.

In previous decades, Xinjiang, in far northwest China, experienced tensions between largely Muslim ethnic minorities and China’s Han ethnic majority. About half the region’s population is made up of minority groups, mainly 11.7 million Uighurs and 1.6 million Kazakhs. Both groups’ language and culture set them apart from Han people.

In 2009, the year Abdulaheb left China, ethnic rioting erupted in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, and nearly 200 people were killed, most of them Han. China has cited that bloodshed and a succession of subsequent attacks on Chinese targets to defend its tough policies in Xinjiang.

The leaks have challenged the official Chinese position by revealing the coercive underpinnings of the camps and by hinting at dissent within the Chinese political system over the harsh policies in Xinjiang. Chinese government spokesmen and official media outlets have denounced the reports, calling them “fake news” and claiming they were part of a conspiracy to undermine stability in the region.

In the Netherlands, where Abdulaheb was raising two children, she began to post criticism of the crackdown on social media this past summer and started feeling more pressure, including death threats.

Abdulaheb’s description of harassment and threats, apparently from members of China’s security services, could not be independently verified. Still, her account fit a pattern that other Uighurs abroad have described. They have also recounted threats and pressure coming from China to remain silent or provide information to agents.

Despite such threats, growing numbers of Uighurs and Kazakhs have spoken out, often using Twitter and Facebook to publicize family members in Xinjiang who have disappeared, possibly into re-education camps or prisons.

The quiet campaign against Abdulaheb, however, seems to have been especially menacing. Abdulaheb issued an image of one of the documents on Twitter to catch the attention of foreign experts on Xinjiang. But her tweets may have also attracted the unwelcome attention of Chinese security officers.

In an interview Saturday, Zenz, the researcher, said that “going public makes her safer” from potential retaliation.

“So if something happens to her now, it will become a new story,” Zenz said. “Silence would have been so much worse.”

Abdulaheb told De Volkskrant that she now wanted to write essays about Uighur history, find work in the Netherlands and improve her Dutch language skills. She also said she felt relieved to have revealed her identity.

“These documents needed to be published,” she said, “even if it means the death of me.”

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