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The Bachelet Visit: Uyghurs Protest in Istanbul

Pleas for the lost reverberated in Istanbul recently as relatives of China’s illegally detained Uyghurs gathered to protest the innocence of their loved ones and demand the UN finds them and brings them home.

By Ruth Ingram


Relatives of the Uyghurs who have disappeared in Xinjiang demand answers during the UN visit to the region (all photos by Ruth Ingram).

Fears of a whitewash by the UN as it visits the region, have prompted calls by the “Chinese Concentration Camp Victims” group based in Turkey for its team to rigorously investigate the disappearance of tens of thousands of innocent Uyghurs, and not be fobbed off by staged events and interviews claiming that all is well in Xinjiang.

Persistent requests by the group of Chinese embassies in Ankara and Istanbul over the past two years have fallen not only on deaf but hostile ears, and hopes were high that Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, would move their case forward.

“We must know the fate of our relatives,” said Jevlan Shirmemet, spokesperson for the group. President, Medine Nazimi, urged the UN to “rescue” their relatives. Her own sister Mevluda disappeared just one month after being released from two years in a so-called “re-education” center in 2019. She has not been heard from since. “We want the UN to rescue our family members,” she said. “This is a test case for the UN. We want true answers. We want them to go to the camps and check everything. They must meet Uyghurs. They must visit them. They must bring them home,” she said.

Second from right, president of the Concentration Camp Survivor’s group in Istanbul, Medine Nazimi holds up a picture of her sister who has disappeared without trace in the system of camps in Xinjiang.

The Zeytinburnu Cultural Centre was full of tragedy and grief as the tales came tumbling out; infant children abandoned here, wives and husbands left behind there, babies and toddlers abducted by CCP officials to be brought up as Chinese in the absence of their detained parents, draconian prison terms for studying in Turkey, performing the Haj or simply for reciting the Quran. Everyone had a nightmare to relive to anyone who would listen.

Ninety years of jail terms have engulfed Zuhre’s family. Thirty-one members were taken over one and a half years. Fifteen have since been released, of whom three or four are now working in forced labor factories scattered around China, but the rest are nowhere to be found. All she knows is that sentences of between ten and twenty-five years were handed down to them all without legal representation or a fair trial. They were all traders and farmers. Repeated requests to the Chinese Embassy in Turkey for information have been ignored.

Thirty-one members of Zuhre’s family have been illegally detained in Xinjiang. The combined total of their sentences is ninety years.

The greatest pain for them all is the not knowing. All those mustered to lend weight to the UN petition had their own story of flight. Most had picked up their own bags in haste, gathered up any child who had a passport, leaving others in the tentative care of relatives or friends, and fled in all directions for safety. Some had travelled the long and torturous route to inner China where smugglers would negotiate their onward journey through Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. All without exception have left a trail of horror behind and the agony will be with them until their dying day. “Who will find my children?” pleaded Sudinisa, a de facto widow following her husband’s capture in Saudi Arabia and forced rendition by the Chinese government, and the disappearance of her three grandchildren after her older children were rounded up in the homeland. “They have vanished,” she said.

They all want answers. They hoped that Michelle Bachelet would be provided with some.

The World Uyghur Congress, together with a coalition of 220 concerned groups, called Bachelet’s visit a “propaganda minefield,” and urged its postponement.

They are dismayed that so far, the special rapporteur has not met with exiled Uyghurs, camp survivors or civil society groups whose large body of evidence concerning the situation in Xinjiang points to crimes against humanity and genocide. They accuse her of “failing in her duty” to insist on independent human rights monitoring and investigation of the vulnerable areas of Xinjiang, Tibet, Southern Mongolia, and Hong Kong and for delaying the release of a report on the “grave human rights violations targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in East Turkestan.”

Pressure is mounting on the High Commissioner as concerned groups petition Geneva, protest around the world and demand her visit is transparent and credible. Without “unfettered access” to the region, to the camps, to those detained and to the Uyghur population, the trip will not only be a farce, but will play into the CCP’s narrative that nothing untoward has happened, and that world criticism amounts to “lies of the century.”

Elderly Uyghurs protesting the disappearance of their relatives in the homeland.

Rushan Abbas, director of Campaign for Uyghurs, speaking at the recent Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, called on Michelle Bachelet to find and visit her own sister, Gulshan Abbas, a retired medical doctor who has been sentenced to twenty years imprisonment.

“This is a war against women, a war against children, a war against original thought, democracy, and human values. And yet, so much of the world remains quiet. China successfully silences international condemnation of its shameful genocidal crimes,” she said. “I demand her to meet with my sister Dr. Gulshan Abbas, my in-laws and many other high-profile cases if she goes to examine the situation that the Uyghurs and other Turkic people are facing today.”

Giving in to CCP pressure not to rock the boat over the atrocities in Xinjiang and other parts of China, would, she warned, have serious consequences for the future of the world. “If policy makers and those in power sit idly by and do nothing today, then the next generation will suffer the consequences of an oppressive world.”


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