This August, Aibota Zhanibek received a surprising call in Kazakhstan from a relative through Chinese chat app WeChat. It was about her sister, Kunekai Zhanibek.
Aibota, 35, a Kazakh citizen born in China, knew that Kunekai, 33, had been held for about seven months in a detention camp in China's Shawan county, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. For six of those months, Kunekai was forced to make towels and carpets for no pay, Aibota says. On the call, Aibota was told that Kunekai had been released and assigned a job in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
That was the good news. But the relative also told Aibota Zhanibek that her 65-year-old mother, Nurzhada Zhumakhan, had been sentenced in June to 20 years in Urumqi's No. 2 Women's Prison. According to a verdict sent to Zhanibek 's relatives, Zhumakhan was guilty of "illegally using superstition to break the rule of law" and "gathering chaos to disrupt social order."
As Muslim Kazakhs, Zhanibek's mother and sister are among the targets of a sprawling security operation by Chinese authorities. Human rights experts estimate that 1.5 million Uighur Muslims and members of other ethnic minority groups, including Chinese-born Kazakhs, have been detained in Xinjiang since 2016. Former detainees say that while in detention they were forced to memorize Chinese communist propaganda and learn Mandarin and were occasionally violently interrogated or beaten.
The government has said the operations are part of a reeducation campaign and defends its detentions and sophisticated surveillance system across Xinjiang as necessary counterterrorism measures. Senior Xinjiang officials have said that most of those brought to the centers have been returned to society. But reporting suggests that these are not mere vocational training centers and that detentions, surveillance — and worse — continue.
Last month in Kazakhstan, NPR interviewed 26 relatives of ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs currently detained or imprisoned in Xinjiang and five former detainees. They said that rather than setting free reeducated citizens, the authorities have been transferring many detainees to formal prisons. Those who have been released remain under strict surveillance.
"I miss my mother," Zhanibek says in her home in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Since this summer, twice a month, her relatives have been able to go to an Urumqi police station and have video calls with her mother. Zhumakhan is nearly blind, hairless and extremely thin since being detained on June 8, 2018, her relatives said.
Zhanibek still also worries about her sister, despite her release: "Nobody is in a good situation. My sister has been released and has a job, but she still has no freedom. She cannot go where she wants. How can you say things are getting better?" she says.
"Targeting people somehow related to religion"
Xinjiang courts have been sentencing detainees to lengthy prison terms — sometimes up to 20 years — in hasty trials where little but a verdict is presented, according to relatives and an ex-detainee. The sentences overwhelmingly target citizens with religious Muslim backgrounds; 23 of the 32 people sentenced in Xinjiang recently were religious students, imams or people who prayed regularly, according to their family members.
"It was a closed court trial. ... They just read the verdict to him, according to his parents," Shakhidyam Memanova says of proceedings in May in which her husband, Nuermaimaiti Maimaitiyiming, a Chinese-born Uighur, was sentenced to 17 years. He is now in prison in Xinyuan county.
One night in May 2018, her husband, a carpet seller, was taken out in handcuffs and a hood in front of their two young children. Memanova suspects it was because he took Quranic classes when he was 14. But in the absence of any trial documentation, neither she nor her husband's parents can be sure. Her in-laws can video call with their son once a month at a police station, and what they have described to her is not reassuring. "[Maimaitiyiming] looks very bad. He has lost a lot of weight," Memanova says.
Bahedati Aken, 27, is also being held in a Xinyuan county prison, sentenced last June to 15 years in prison for studying the Quran with an also-imprisoned imam named Muhtourhan Kanodil, according to Aken's aunt, Gulbaran Omirali.
"[Aken] was 13 when he attended two months of religious courses," Omirali says. "I do not understand why something so long ago and which was legal at the time is now a crime."
"They are targeting people somehow related to religion," concludes Kassym Tursynkan. His two younger brothers — Kasyem, an imam, and Karkyn, who prayed regularly — were sentenced to 20 and 10 years, respectively, this summer and are now being held in the northern Xinjiang city of Wusu.
Tursynkan believes his brothers were betrayed, particularly Kasyem the imam, who he says was regularly praised by local religious authorities for upholding ethnic harmony: "They were not extremists. They did what they were allowed to do within the state limits."
Some detention centers have been outfitted with makeshift courts, according to former detainees. Ergali Ermekuly was tried on April 7, 2018, in a detention center court in Xinjiang's Huocheng county. He received a three-year sentence based on evidence allegedly taken from his cellphone showing he had visited Kazakhstan, downloaded WhatsApp and listened to audio describing China's mosque-destruction campaign in Xinjiang. He was not allowed to see the evidence itself.
"They did tell me I could hire a lawyer, but based on cases of other people in the detention camp, those who hired lawyers were given longer sentences because it was seen as a sign of opposition to the state," says Ermekuly, now living in Kazakhstan.
Ermekuly was freed during an agreement between Kazakhstan and China to release 2,000 Chinese-born ethnic Kazakhs at the end of 2018. But he says his life has already been destroyed. "I do not have a family, and I do not have my home," Ermekuly, whose wife divorced him this year, says. "I came back [to Kazakhstan], but I have nothing."
"They threatened my father"
While relatives describe being able to contact their loved ones through video monitors at local police stations, they say they have not been able to visit them in prison. What little information they can glean from infrequent contact suggests that those sent to Xinjiang's prisons are held in poor conditions.
Almakhan Myrzan says her brother Bakytzhan, a former imam at a mosque in Xinjiang, was sentenced in May to 14 years in prison in a closed trial with no relatives present. The verdict was delivered by mail to his family.
Myrzan says her brother was allowed one phone call from prison in Urumqi. "When he finally called his wife, he sounded really faint. He could not even remember his own name at first," Myrzan says.
The family members of another prisoner in Wusu, Berzat Bolatkhan, have phoned police repeatedly to find out why he was sentenced to 17 years in August.
"They threatened my father, saying, 'If you keep asking about your son, you will end up the same way,' " Bolatkhan's brother Yerzat recalls.
Construction tenders for Wusu prison show it underwent an expansion beginning in August 2016.
Xinjiang officials, however, say they are winding down the sprawling network of detention centers.
"Most people who received educational training returned to society and returned home," Alken Tuniaz, the Xinjiang government's vice chairman, said at a news briefing in July.
The government's chairman, Shohrat Zakir, said about 90% of those released have found "suitable jobs."
Some younger, well-educated detainees have been released and assigned to jobs, say relatives. But once they leave detention, they remain closely monitored through heavy state surveillance set up in the region.
University-educated Razila Nural, an ethnic Kazakh woman, was forced to work in a textile factory in Xinjiang after authorities deemed her fit for release from a detention facility in August 2018. Since being released from the factory late last December, Nural has effectively disappeared, says her mother.
"I last spoke to Razila this January and have not had contact since," says her mother, Aiytkali Ganiguli. "She said, 'I am healthy. I am working now. Do not believe fake media reports about my working in a black factory.' "
A graduate student forced to work in a textile plant located within another detention facility was allowed to resume his graduate studies this year — under strict monitoring. "He is not permitted to travel anywhere except the route from his home to his classes and back," says a relative in China who did not provide a name for fear of retaliation from the authorities.
Relatives of Xinjiang residents describe how they are effectively under house arrest; they must get permission to leave the township where their residency is registered.
The rules are enforced by a network of closed-circuit TV cameras, some equipped with facial recognition. Relatives say the cameras can spot whether someone in a household receives undeclared visitors, takes an unauthorized trip or turns on the lights suspiciously early or late.
"Once, my mother left to attend a relative's funeral without public security permission, and the public security bureau called my nephew within an hour to have her come back. At checkpoints, her identification card sets off alarms. She is 80 years old," says Aydarhan Salamat. She thinks her mother is monitored because Salamat's aunt, Meniarbek Mariya, 46, is being held in a prison in the Xinjiang county of Yining for an unknown length of time.
Even nondetained Xinjiang residents who have relatives in detention or who have been previously detained have to check in with local administrative offices to report their movements.
"Every day, my brother still has to go to ideology classes at the local government office to rid him of religious thoughts," says the brother of a Muslim former detainee living in the city of Hami, Xinjiang. He withheld both their names because he still lives in China and risks detention for speaking to a foreign journalist.
Chinese state control covers all spheres of life in Xinjiang. Kunekai Zhanibek, the woman released in August and assigned a job in Urumqi, "got married recently but had to ask for state permission beforehand," says her sister Aibota. "Can you imagine having to ask for permission about such a personal decision?"
Passports in exchange for good PR
Relatives in Kazakhstan desperate to learn more about loved ones in China are turning to a new potential source of information: the slow trickle of ethnic Kazakhs born in Xinjiang who can now get Chinese passports to travel to Kazakhstan.
Once forbidden from traveling abroad, some of Xinjiang's ethnic Kazakh residents have even been able to procure Chinese passports this year to visit relatives in Kazakhstan for one month at a time. As a condition for the passports, the residents are told by local authorities to share only positive news about the region. Travelers must name guarantors in China, such as friends or relatives, who are punished if the travelers don't return or if they meet people they aren't supposed to.
"If you don't return, the guarantors will suffer," says Gulserik Kazykhan. Her brother-in-law Raman uly Zahrkyn was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in February for praying and for donating to his local mosque. He is being held in Wusu's prison. She finally learned of uly Zahrkyn's fate this May from relatives living in China who visited her in Kazakhstan. They stayed for a month before they were forced to return to Xinjiang.
Access to passports still appears strictly controlled. "There are three people from the village who can go abroad for a month, and they take turns," says Aitalim, who goes by one name. From his fellow village residents, Aitalim learned that his cousin Aiturgan Turlan, a former religious affairs state employee, remains detained in Xinjiang's Zhaosu county for allowing a local mosque to be built too large.
Gunikai Naruzibieke is seeking information about the condition of her cousin Bayimulati Naruzibieke, sentenced to a decade in prison this summer and now held in the military garrison city of Shihezi.
Gunikai Naruzibieke has had a hard time persuading relatives from Xinjiang to talk to her. "My relatives are terrified to talk because there was an imam in my family who is now in Kazakhstan — he didn't come back from a trip [there]," she says. As punishment, the imam's guarantor, his daughter Saule, was briefly placed in a detention camp last year.
State control over Xinjiang residents extends internationally, says Ainur Turlyqozha, who lives in a village outside Almaty. Her younger brother Baiasyl disappeared into the detention system in October 2018. Turlyqozha heard he had been sentenced to prison, but she could not get confirmation from relatives who recently visited Almaty.
"One relative even came just five days ago," says Turlyqozha. "But when they come, they will not answer my questions about my brother. They just say vaguely, 'We have heard of something like this.' "
Kaster Bakyt contributed research and translation in Almaty.