That very day her sister and aunt disappeared. It was six days after the renowned Uyghur activist denounced the disappearance of many others – some of them babies.
I first met Ms. Rushan Abbas in Geneva on the day when the United Nations Human Rights Council examined China under the Universal Periodic Review. I was impressed by the sign she carried, a picture of a middle-aged Uyghur lady with these words: “Where is my sister? She is a medical doctor, she does not need vocational training.” The mass internment camps of Xinjiang are, in fact, officially known as transformation through education camps, and while people there are tortured and die, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims to be offering them “vocational training” to cure them of religious extremism.
Rushan is no extremist at all. She is Uyghur, Muslim and friendly, and has a high opinion of the West, where she now lives, the West’s shortcomings notwithstanding. In the West, she has been a champion of human rights for her people. Actually, she was a human rights activist also before, in her motherland, but the American stage has given her fame worldwide – and brought painful consequences.
A former student activist during the pro-democracy demonstrations at Xinjiang University in 1985 and 1988, she served as the Vice-President of the Students’ Science and Culture Union at the university in 1987. The Union was founded by the current President of the World Uyghur Congress, Mr. Dolkun Isa, and she has worked closely with him ever since. In the United States, Ms. Abbas was a co-founder of the California-based Tengritagh Overseas Students and Scholars Association, the first Uyghur organization in the United States established in 1993, serving as that organization’s first Vice-President. The charter and regulations she helped to draft later served as the blueprint for, and played an important role in, the establishment of the Uyghur American Association (UAA) in 1998, which is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy. Ms. Abbas was subsequently elected Vice President of UAA for two terms. When in 1998 the U.S. Congress funded the Uyghur language service at Radio Free Asia based in Washington, D.C., she was the first Uyghur reporter and news anchor broadcasting daily to the Uyghur region.
From 2002-2003, Ms. Abbas supported Operation Enduring Freedom as a language specialist at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She has frequently briefed members of the U.S. Congress and officials at the State Department on the human rights situation of the Uyghur people, and their history and culture, and arranged testimonies before Congressional committees and Human Rights Commissions. She provided her expertise to other federal and military agencies as well, and in 2007 she assisted during a meeting between then-President George W. Bush and Rebiya Kadeer, the world-famous moral leader of the Uyghurs, in Prague. Later that year she also briefed then-First Lady Laura Bush in the White House on the Human Rights situation in Xinjiang, a Chinese toponym to which Uyghurs prefer “East Turkestan.”
The name Guantanamo Bay is associated with terrorism and detention. How did you get involved there?
My involvement with the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the military prison located at the U.S. Naval Base on the coast of Cuba, also popularly known as “Gitmo,” is tied to the story of the 22 Uyghurs detained there after the “Ghulja Incident.” In early February 1997, a series of protests broke out in the county-level city of Ghulja, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as a reaction to the execution of 30 Uyghur advocates for independence and the repression of Uyghur national identity. After two days of demonstrations, on February 5, the police dispersed the marchers with violence and opened fire. The government’s official number of people shot dead that day is nine, while we estimate more than 100 were killed, even up to 167. Later another estimated 1,600 people were arrested. The 22 Uyghurs of my story succeeded in escaping from China, reaching bordering Central Asian countries.
But a new problem was awaiting them across the border: its name being the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). On June 15, 2001, the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan announced in Shanghai, China, the creation of a Eurasian political, economic and security alliance. The SCO agreement was then signed in June 2002, becoming operative on September 19, 2003 (on June 8, 2017, India and Pakistan joined as well). That agreement includes cooperation against terrorism; that is, “terrorism” as defined by the country that has the power to impose its definition on the others. Basically, this pact means that the Central Asian countries always do what the Chinese government asks them to do regarding Uyghurs: arrest and deport them.
So, the 22 Uyghurs who escaped the “Ghulja Incident” had to escape again. They reached Pakistan and Afghanistan, the only places in the area which offered protection and didn’t require a visa, unlike Turkey, Canada, or the United States. Their nightmare began after September 11, when the U.S. military raided Afghanistan. While trying to escape the war zone, some Pakistani bounty hunters caught and sold them for $5,000 each to the U.S. authorities as foreign fighters. But it was a set up by China, which falsely declared them terrorists. They ended up in Guantanamo. Then, after a comprehensive investigation in 2002-2003, the U.S. government established that the charge of terrorism against them was wrong and that they posed no threat to the U.S. or their allies. But finding another country for them to go to was a big, new problem. The Chinese government was pressuring countries not to accept the re-settlement of those Uyghurs from Gitmo. As a result, the 22 falsely accused prisoners remained at Gitmo from 4 to 11 years.
Being an Uyghur living in the U.S., I was contacted by one of the contractors for the Department of Defense involved in the war in Afghanistan to work as an interpreter at Gitmo from early 2002 to December of the same year. I then left the base, but in April 2003 I was invited back for two more months, totaling 11 months of staying full time at the base. In 2006, I joined the defense team of the 22 Uyghurs on a Habeas corpus petition (a recourse against unlawful detention) when their imprisonment became indefinite. The attorneys and I worked closely with the Obama administration on their resettlement, and finally, they were sent to Albania, Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, El Salvador, and Slovenia. They are all free now, as justice prevailed. Patricio Henriquez, the award-winning Chilean filmmaker, based in Canada, made a movie out of this incredible story, Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd, which premiered in Montreal, on October 10, 2014, at the Festival du nouveau cinéma. I am also featured in that movie for the part I played in the story. The movie later featured in international documentary festivals in the UK, the Netherlands, Prague and became the opening films for the documentary festivals in Turkey and Taiwan.
You were born in Xinjiang and studied there. Which memories do you have of life as an Uyghur there at that time?
I was born and raised in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and left in May 1989. My childhood and youth memories back home are of rich and colorful ethnic Uyghur culture after the dark period of the Great Maoist Cultural Revolution. For about 10 years, I enjoyed it so much.
What brought you then to America and why did you decide to remain?
I came to the U.S. on May 9, 1989, for my master’s degree. First, I was a visiting scholar at the Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Washington State University, in Prosser, Washington before I was accepted at the Plant Pathology Department for graduate school. Why did I decide to stay in the U.S.? Because soon after my arrival on June 4, 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre ordered by the CCP took place. I watched the tanks rolling in and shooting – enough reason to avoid going back.
When did you start your human rights work on behalf of persecuted Uyghurs?
I have been an activist on behalf of the rights of my people since I was a student at Xinjiang University in Urumqi. In the U.S., I started my activities when riots and incidents in Xinjiang, involving the deaths of Uyghurs, multiplied in the 1990s.
“One Voice One Step” is a great initiative of yours: can you explain it?
Starting in April 2017, the situation in Xinjiang deteriorated rapidly while the international community, media, and governments remained silent. Horrible atrocities were taking place, and globally no one was paying attention. With the help of the Uyghur Academy – founded on September 9, 2009 in Istanbul to advance Uyghur national science and education – and of my brother Dr. Rishat Abbas – the honorary chairman of the Uyghur Academy and senior adviser of the World Uyghur Congress, one of the co-founders of the Uyghur American Association and the Uyghur Human Rights Project − Drexel University in Philadelphia organized a scholarly conference in October 2017. I was featured as one of the panelists. The aim was to find a way to bring to the attention of major media outlets the Xinjiang detention camps – now officially called “transformation through education” camps – and lead the Uyghurs around the world to get involved in the human rights movement. In January 2018, I came up with the idea of organizing a worldwide protest involving and including all Uyghur organizations and activists abroad. I then thought that having women leading these protests could attract international media attention. Thus, I approached Uyghur women around the globe and put together a small advisory group to plan the details. It ended up becoming a WhatsApp Group called “One Voice One Step” (OVOS), which in turn became the name of an initiative of my organization, the Campaign for Uyghurs. “OVOS” had a very clear message: “Uniting our voices and taking a step together with all the Uyghur organizations and Uyghur activists abroad against the atrocities unfolding in our homeland.” As a result, on March 15, coinciding with the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, we organized a demonstration in front of the UN headquarter followed by a protest at the Chinese Mission to the UN. Solidarity protests took place all over the globe on that very same day, lasting for 22 hours in 18 cities in 14 countries – in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Japan, and the UK.
Some of your relatives living in Xinjiang disappeared…
My in-laws in Hotan city vanished: a 69- and 71-year-old farmer and his wife, three of their daughters and one daughter-in-law plus their husbands disappeared. My husband, Abdulhakim Idris, and I have not been able to find their whereabouts since April 2017. We fear that they were all taken to the infamous camps. We have no idea where my husband’s 14 nieces and nephews, aged 3 to 22, are today. They may have been sent to orphanages in inner China. We also heard that Abdurehim Idris, my brother-in-law, was sentenced to 20 years in jail. I then decided to expose the atrocities perpetrated by the Chinese government in Xinjiang, the fate of my in-laws, and the conditions of the camps as one of the panelists at a Hudson Institute conference in Washington, D.C., on September 5, 2018. Six days after, on September 11, my sister, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, and my aunt disappeared on the same day. Voices coming from distant relatives say that my aunt has been released, but there is still no trace or word from my sister.
Do you think they were taken because of your work in favor of religious liberty and human rights?
Both my sister and my aunt are unusual targets. They aren’t famous: they are not educators, writers or poets. Neither has traveled to any foreign Muslim country, and they both speak Chinese fluently. I say this because Uyghurs are often targeted when they travel abroad (under suspicion of “collusion” with “terrorism” or “foreign powers”) or can’t speak Mandarin (seen by the Chinese central government as a sign either of ignorant backwardness or nationalist rebellion). My sister worked in a government-run hospital as a medical doctor. Neither she nor my aunt fits any of the usual criteria for so-called “vocational training centers,” i.e., the internment camps. Therefore, I could firmly say that the only reason for their abduction is “guilt by association”: they became victims of CCP reprisal for my activism in the United States.
President Xi Jinping’s fight against all religions is very harsh. Is this approach a novelty or a constant?
It is Xi Jinping’s novelty to target Uyghurs and Muslims so strongly at the same time. The reason is his overwhelming dream for world domination. Today, the entire population of East Turkestan has become the victim of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, the grand and imposing development strategy devised by the Chinese government which involves building infrastructure and making investments across Asia, Europe, and Africa. It has been rebranded as the “New Silk Road,” and it’s the final solution for the imperialistic Chinese dream of “Made in China 2025” − the first of a three-stage plan aimed at establishing China as the leading global manufacturing and technological power by 2049 − redefining globalization “with Chinese characteristics.” Dr. Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center on Chinese Strategy, stated it plainly in his book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015). The occupied land of East Turkestan lies in the strategic heart of this blueprint for world domination.
Having said that, since Chairman Mao’s occupation of East Turkestan in 1949, the government has tried relentlessly to destroy Uyghur culture and religion. Uyghurs have been persecuted under the label of being “nationalists,” “counter-revolutionaries,” and “separatists.” Following the 9/11 tragedy, Communist authorities renamed their effort as a “War on Terrorism.” The whole Xinjiang region is thus branded. Punishment is cultural and collective. Millions of people are being arrested and detained with no accusation of real crimes. Counties, districts, and neighborhoods are filling quotas. China has characterized all resistance as “Islamic terrorism,” and on that pretext developed a surveillance state built on DNA collection, ubiquitous cameras, facial-recognition software, and GPS tracking devices on vehicles. The entirety of Xinjiang has become a police state.
There is much sympathy for Uyghurs in America. The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, chaired by Senator Marco Rubio and co-chaired by Representative Christopher H. Smith, is bringing to light the Chinese situation, often times hearing testimonies from persecuted Muslims of Xinjiang. What do you expect from this?
In my opinion, the United States’ sympathy, and the support of U.S. politicians for Uyghurs come from a genuine human rights perspective. When it comes to the Uyghur question, the U.S. has always been on the side of justice and what is right. Therefore, I do hope to see some strong and important actions. For example, sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against the Chinese officials who are responsible for such horrendous atrocities and crimes against humanity. I also wish to see support for the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, introduced in mid-November 2018 by Senator Rubio, Senator Robert Menendez − Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee − and Congressman Smith. I also want investigation missions sent to the region, or the expansion of the Radio Free Asia Uyghur Service airtime, which is essential for uncovering and reporting on mass detentions, etc. Reports on the real situation in the region are hindered by the information blockade and media censorship orchestrated by the Communist regime of Beijing which manipulates public opinion.
Many people see a kind of natural enmity between the Muslim people and the US, but the case of Uyghurs demonstrate the opposite…
The U.S. government and lawmakers have always been very supportive of the Uyghurs’ democratic activities, beginning with the funding of the previously mentioned Uyghur Service of Radio Free Asia in 1998, and continuing with the clearing and releasing of the 22 Uyghurs of Guantanamo Bay. These were turning points for developing such a comforting relationship. I believe the U.S. government and the American people are finally seeing the evil purpose of the Chinese Communist regime for what it is. Chinese nationalism isn’t only focused on replacing America as the global super-power; it aims at replacing world democracy and freedom with its totalitarian philosophy and system. The crisis now unfolding in Xinjiang is unprecedented. If the world doesn’t challenge Communist China on this terrible outrage, darkness will descend upon the world with mass surveillance, repression, and evil deeds to put an end to the free world as we know it today.