On July 5, 2009, what began as a peaceful protest calling for an investigation into the deaths of two Uyghur men devolved into violent riots when confronted by police in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. At least 197 people died over three days of rioting, according to the Chinese police, with at least 1,721 others injured and at least 43 men “disappeared.” International organizations suggest those figures are actually much higher.

Ilham Tohti, winner of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, was first detained on July 7, 2009, after speaking out about the ethnic unrest that broke out on July 5 in Urumqi. He was initially held under house arrest before being transferred to an unknown location where he was held incommunicado for interrogation. He was released on August 22, 2009.

Tohti has been a target of frequent harassment by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on Uyghur rights since he established the online forum for inter-ethnic dialogue Uyghur Online in 2006. In April 2010, police warned Tohti against leaving for an international conference on Turkic culture at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey. In February 2013, he was detained at the airport and prevented from traveling to the U.S. to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University. In November 2013, security agents allegedly rammed his car and warned him against speaking to foreign media, threatening his family. After he was detained on January 15,2015, and held incommunicado for over five months, Tohti was convicted on spurious charges of Separatism in September 2014 and sentenced to life in prison.

Below is Tohti’s open letter to China’s State Council and National People’s Congress, originally published on the website of Radio Free Asia on the fourth anniversary of the riots that marked a turning point in Tohti’s peaceful advocacy for Uyghur rights. Two years later, we urge you to send a letter to Chinese authorities demanding Tohti’s immediate and unconditional release.

(July 5, 2013) Today is the fourth anniversary of the July 5 incident, which has caused severe psychological trauma both to Uyghurs and to Han Chinese. Uyghur blood flows in my veins, and I grew up in the embrace of a Uyghur family. I have made a long-term study of the issues facing Xinjiang and, as an independent intellectual, constantly make suggestions and recommendations to the government. I carry an unavoidable responsibility both to my people and to my country for the correct handling of ethnic relations.

For the past four years, the psychological wounds of the Uyghur people have not healed. On the contrary, salt has been rubbed into them. There is continual and constant oppression of Uyghurs. One example is the disappearances of Uyghurs following the July 5 incident. Out of 18,000 people detained in the wake of July 5, 2009, some have been sentenced to death, some have been sentenced to jail, and some have been released. However, there is still a group which has “disappeared.” So I would like to offer some suggestions on the matter of the “disappeared.”

Following investigations by our website, Uyghur Online, and by other independent media outlets, we have been able to confirm the identities of 34 of the “disappeared” Uyghurs:
1. Imam Mamatli
2. Abahun Sopur
3. Turghun Obulqasim
4. Tursunjan Toxti
5. Zaker Mamat
6. Muhter Mehat
7. Mamatabdulla Abdurahim
8. Abudureyim Sidiq
9. Alim Abudureyim
10. Alimjan Helaji
11. Mamat Barat
12. Ayitghazi Hasanbek
13. Amantaj Jumataj
14. Yusup Turghun
15. Memtimin Yasin
16. Eysajan Emat
17. Jumajan
18. Bekri
19. Abdughani Ezim
20. Abdusamat Abulait
21. Nabijan
22. Akber Tursun
23. Tursunjan Tohti
24. Abdulaziz Ablat
25. Ematjan Juma
26. Turdimamat Tursunniyaz
27. Abukerim Abla
28. Imin Momin
29. Tayirjan Ebay
30. Abdurahim Qadir
31. Alimjan Bakri
32. Alimjan Sulayman
33. Toxtiali Hashim
34. Abliz Qadir

At first, the families of missing persons waited for the government to explain the situation, but no news came. By the following year, some of the parents of missing persons (Patigul Ghulam, Qurbangul Mijit, Barat Haji, etc.) began to petition the authorities in Beijing.

But a few days later, local police and officials followed them and forced them to return home. In the third year, they began to give interviews to the foreign media, making accusations against the government. According to foreign media reports, 37 identities of missing Uyghurs [and Kazakhs] have been confirmed from information received directly from the families of the missing. There is evidence that 34 of those were arrested by the police, while there is no evidence in the case of the other three.

The stories of what happened during their arrest, and of their families’ attempts to track them down, have already been made public to the world. To date, there have been more than 70 news reports, 10 statements, and a published report including the names of the disappeared, their and their families’ photographs, and the details of their arrests and disappearances, some of which have been confirmed by police and officials. I think we can say that the question of these disappearances is no longer a secret to the international community, still less among Uyghurs.

Currently, the families of missing persons are receiving only the following minimalistic and evasive replies:

“We are continuing to look for them.”

“The investigation has ended, and we need to wait for orders from higher up before we can announce the findings.”

“Your [son or daughter] has escaped from prison, and we do not know his whereabouts.”

“Your [son or daughter] has been released, and may have fled the country.”

Obviously, it is not an accountable government that gives such replies to the families of missing persons.

Officials of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government, Urumqi municipal police department, or local levels of government often pass the buck when contacted by families trying to find missing persons. Families of missing persons are kept shuttling between the three departments, causing them great emotional damage and considerable financial loss. Some relatives have been placed under surveillance and detained after looking for missing persons. For example, Patigul Ghulam, the mother of disappeared person Imam Mamatli, was detained for seven days.

The identities of these 37 missing persons have been confirmed only because their families had the courage to come forward and report them, and because they have been reported in the foreign media. Actually, there may be many more yet to be revealed. But even if these 37 people are the only ones about whom their families can’t get news, this is still no small matter.

The authorities have yet to give a clear explanation to the families of missing persons, who may well have died in prison. It is unsurprising that reports about the missing have been exaggerated by some foreign organizations, who claim the number is in the tens of thousands. There are a variety of theories about the missing even within the Uyghur community. This leads to great disappointment in the state among the Uyghurs, and even to a psychology of hatred, which is an understandable phenomenon.

There may be various reasons for the government’s attitude on this issue. But I cannot understand why the government does not inform the families of the whereabouts of these disappeared people, because its bounden duty is to safeguard national stability and security.

Perhaps authorities fear that announcing the fate of the missing will lead to social unrest or damage the image of the government. But I do not think this concern is justified. If there has been a dereliction of duty by officials, then the government should investigate and bring to justice those responsible. This would not only prove that there is rule of law in our country, it would help heal more than 10 million psychological hurts among Uyghurs, and restore trust in the state.

Hiding the situation of these missing people isn’t a long-term solution. Soon or later, the truth will be revealed to the world. Currently the majority of families of disappeared persons have asked the government to explain the whereabouts of the missing. They say that if it is determined that missing family members have died, they will be able to hold a funeral for the dead, submit to fate, and come to peace of mind through prayers for the dead. If the government were to apologize to the families of missing persons, and provide full compensation to their families, I believe this would also be acceptable. At the very least, it would dampen current discontent with the government.

To this end, I propose the following recommendations:

  • The government should publish independent, comprehensive, detailed, and persuasive reports on the disappearance of Uyghurs [and Kazakhs] following the July 5 incident.
  • The state should issue an apology and compensation to the victims’ families, so as to ease their psychological suffering.
  • Those responsible should be brought to justice.

I have repeatedly made known my observations and recommendations regarding Xinjiang, which has brought me a great deal of trouble and “tea-drinking” [with state security police]. Making these proposals may result in even more “tea-drinking.” But it makes me happy, because I believe that many others would like to suggest the same thing, and because I am telling the truth.

Translation by Luisetta Mudie and Mamatjan Juma