US-based Uighur journalist says China detained 20 relatives

BEIJING (AP) — A U.S.-based Uighur journalist is accusing the Chinese authorities of seizing about 20 of her relatives in Xinjiang, apparently to pressure her to cease her critical reporting about the turbulent northwestern region.

Gulchehra Hoja, who has worked for U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia in Washington for 17 years, said on Facebook that her mother, father, brother and other relatives were imprisoned because of her work as a reporter. Amnesty International said Thursday at least eight of Hoja’s cousins are being held due to their relation to the journalist.

Hoja’s decision to take her allegation public is a rare move at a time when many overseas Uighurs fear speaking openly or using their real names in discussing the situation in Xinjiang. That’s because of the very high likelihood of government retribution against their relatives still in China.

Her disclosure comes amid rising concerns over the Chinese government’s campaign to send tens of thousands of Uighurs to a network of extrajudicial detention camps in the name of national security.

China suspects radicals among the Turkic Muslim ethnic group of plotting a violent campaign for independence from Beijing and characterizes the detentions as prolonged study sessions where they study patriotism and the dangers of Islamic extremism.

But rights groups and foreign academics say the shadowy system is ethnically discriminatory, rife with abuse and has resulted in a significant portion of the Uighur population locked up. A 2017 Associated Press report found that Xinjiang’s Uighurs live under intense physical and digital surveillance and are sometimes whisked away for ostensible crimes such as speaking to overseas relatives.

Calls to the press offices for Xinjiang’s police and propaganda departments went unanswered.

China maintains strict control over information in Xinjiang, which it has flooded with security forces over the past decade. Foreign reporters who travel there are followed and harassed by the authorities and usually expelled after a short time, making it extremely difficult to obtain accurate information about the situation on the ground.

This week, Human Rights Watch reported it had found new evidence that authorities in Xinjiang are electronically sweeping up citizens’ personal information, including their travel history, prayer habits, the number of books in their possession, and banking and health records.

That information has led to people being detained and sent to political indoctrination centers, the group said.

Even before then, China’s 10 million Uighurs had already faced a raft of restrictions not imposed on people of the Han ethnicity, who are the overwhelming majority in China.

Uighurs face multiple hurdles in procuring passports and those who have them are required to leave them with the police. Hotels are required to register their presence with local authorities, and frequently turn them away to avoid the hassle. Frequent road blocks and checkpoints across the vast Xinjiang region enable authorities to stop people and check their mobile phones for content that might be deemed suspicious.

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