For no other reason than being a Uyghur, Mewlan disappeared in 2017. His sister did not give up, and discovered he is in jail for nine years for “separatism.”
by Ruth Ingram
Mewlan. Beloved brother, husband, father, son, and friend. Wrenched from a cafeteria during his lunch break, hooded, shackled, and hauled away by machine gun brandishing police officers. Kept in a holding cell while his fate was determined, terrified out of his wits, moved to an internment camp, and finally after several months and at least one false alarm that he was to be released, sentenced to nine years in prison. His only crime as far as anyone could tell was simply that of being a Uyghur.
Mewlan (transliterated Maiwulani Nuermaimaiti in Mandarin) is Rizwangul’s brother. Now a New Zealand citizen, after moving there for postgraduate studies, she is on a quest to see her brother freed and to overturn the injustice that has been thrust on their family.
It all started in January 2017. After his arrest together with hundreds of thousands of her countrymen and women all over her homeland, she felt helpless, as the shutters went down completely on all contact with her mother and friends in Xinjiang.
Sporadic, awkward, clipped conversations dwindled to nothing, which puzzled Rizwangul until she realized that merely having a relative overseas, never mind contacting them, could result in immediate internment under a new regime in her homeland orchestrated by the latest iron fist, Chen Quanguo. Worried that her calls would endanger her family, she also stopped calling. For two years, there was total silence. She had no idea what had become of her mother or her brother. In common with most diaspora Uyghurs, once Chen assumed the helm of the north west, that was it as far as normal contact went with their homeland.
The litany of CCP brutal, illegal violence towards innocent Uyghurs has continued unabated. Witnesses, too terrified to speak up, have been silently holding back, afraid that publicizing their loved ones plight could make matters worse. Now many of them, desperate for news, are coming forward in the hope that their cases might be heard by the world, and that by some miracle their relative or friend might be released.
Sometimes, tragic life events can precipitate their decision. Rizwangul’s was spurred on after the New Zealand, Christchurch bombings in which a close friend died. “I realized time is short and no one knows what tomorrow might bring,” she said. “I could not stay silent, or I would feel guilty for the rest of my life.” She decided to speak out.
Frantic enquiries enabled her to piece together the puzzle of his brother’s disappearance. Hoping against hope that he might somehow be released, she received a crushing blow on September 2, 2019, after an enquiry by the WGEID (UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances) revealed that he had been sentenced to nine years imprisonment for “splitting the State.”
In December 2019, after this heartbreaking news, she launched a petition to rally support for her brother aiming to garner at least 50,000 signatures.
A mere three weeks after her petition got underway, Rizwangul suddenly received a message out of the blue from her mother breaking the two-and-a-half-year silence. She felt that somehow the publicity might be working. As mysteriously as she had disappeared, her mother’s voice suddenly reappeared on WeChat, the Chinese social media App. She simply said, “I can talk to you”.
“That was such a big day for me,” said Rizwangul. “Finally, I heard her voice!”
As if nothing had happened, with no explanations as to the silence, and no awkward questions asked, they picked up where they had left off. Exchanging pleasantries, they asked after each other’s health, and how they were all doing. She learned that her sister in law and son had moved in with her mother, who baby sits the child while his mother is out at work. She avoided the subject of Mewlan, acutely aware that all communication between China and overseas is monitored. She knew however that he could not have been there, or she would have seen him. Whenever she has dared to broach him since, family members change the subject immediately. Conversations have been superficial but Rizwangul is simply glad to know they are all alive.
Mewlan’s story begins 36 years ago. The youngest son of a close-knit family, nine years Rizwangul’s junior, their parents were respected teachers in the community. They encouraged their children to study hard and made many financial sacrifices along the way. When Rizwangul’s studies took her to Beijing on the other side of China, they were right behind her, cheering her on to follow her dreams.
“Be a successful student,” they urged. Don’t worry about us, we will always support you”.
Family relationships were good, the home was spotless, and mealtimes were a treat. Rizwangul recalls Mewlan’s fondness for his mother’s cooking, and his own meticulous love of order and cleanliness.
She remembers their father, who sadly passed away in 2012, joking and telling them stories as children. She remembers how he used to carefully help them cover school textbooks and exercise books before the start of a new school term, and spur them on to do well. Mewlan had a quiet disposition, but was popular with friends whom he loved to make laugh. Not a drinker or smoker, he was a softhearted son who was happy to help around the house.
“He likes good things,” she recalls, “beautiful things.” She smiles as she talks about his love of deserts and chocolates, and nice clothes. Thinking back on their family life together, she regrets not having been more caring of him. “I wish I had bought him more,” she says, vowing to change that when he is released. “I miss him so much,” she says, remembering his face as she recollected their childhood. “I just feel him looking helplessly at me now.”
Mewlan married in 2015, and his first son was born in April 2016. He never got to see his child’s first birthday.
Rizwangul is puzzled as to why her brother attracted the attention of the authorities. He kept himself to himself, worked hard as an Internet network engineer, spoke fluent Mandarin, and had good relationships with all ethnic groups in his work unit. He never involved himself in politics, and concentrated on being a good husband and father.
“He did nothing against the government, or the law, posed no threat to the State, and did nothing to justify prison,” says Rizwangul. “Why did they take him away?” she asks.
Another baffling piece of the jigsaw appeared on June 10, 2020, almost three years to the day after he disappeared. Her mother, apropos of nothing, was allowed a rare video call with her son. Typically, detainees are allowed family contact as a reward for learning President’s speeches, or memorizing Party policy. Rizwangul’s mother briefly reported that she had seen him and that he looked OK.
Having made New Zealand her home ten years ago, Rizwangul had been begging the government of her adoptive country in the meantime to make enquiries, but it was not until early June this year that the Chinese Embassy responded, with information supporting the WGEID findings that her brother was in fact currently serving a sentence in Beiye Prison, Shihezi City, Xinjiang.
Whilst relieved on one hand to have cast iron confirmation that Mewlan is alive, this is not enough for Rizwangul.
“I am not satisfied with that,” she says. “I don’t know the whole story; I don’t know what is really happening to my brother. While he was smiling at the camera, were his wrists and ankles in pain from shackles?” She brooded. “How long is he going to suffer in that situation?” She frets about her elderly mother living with the constant stress of unknowing since her son was detained. “How long is my mother going to have to endure this?” She demanded. “My worries about him remain unchanged. It is not enough just knowing he is alive; I want my brother out, I want my brother back, and returned to normal life.”
She loves New Zealand and is grateful for her new life there. She has a job delivering public services to migrant and refugee groups, and plans to take further study to equip her better in working with diverse communities.
Her family taught her to be a good citizen and to give something back to society. But, speaking through deep sobs, she cannot rest until her brother is free. “Everything I do, everything I see in this beautiful country is tainted with the face of my brother and my family suffering in my homeland.”
“He is being punished for a crime he did not commit,” she said. “He must be released.”