Ibrahim Qasim had investigated ways to flee China before he was ordered to return to Xinjiang.
A young Uyghur man who went missing after learning he was going to be sent to an internment camp in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has been found to have died by suicide, according to officials and a Canada-based activist.
Uyghur activist Guly Mahsut recently published a video to her YouTube channel, in which she claimed that a 19-year-old man from Yengisar (in Chinese, Yingjisha) county, in the XUAR’s Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture, named Ibrahim Qasim had contacted her in May 2019 while he was living and working in southeastern China’s Fujian province.
The two began regularly exchanging messages after Qasim—who was able to use a proxy service to access websites typically restricted by the country’s firewall—left a comment on one of Mahsut’s YouTube videos, detailing the discrimination he faced in eastern China, as well as the situation facing Uyghurs in the XUAR.
Authorities in the region are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of camps as part of a campaign of extralegal incarceration since early 2017.
According to Mahsut, in December 2019, authorities called Qasim and demanded that he return to the XUAR. Mahsut said she tried to convince Qasim to find a way to extend the paperwork that allowed him to do business in Fujian, but he told her that he felt compelled to return to the region because refusing to do so could put his family members at risk.
The two agreed to stop exchanging messages upon his return to the region in January and Qasim asked Mahsut to monitor his situation by following his WeChat account, where he planned to continue making posts and changing his profile photo periodically as a way of signaling to her that he was still free. Information is notoriously difficult to get into and out of the XUAR and communications are tightly monitored by authorities for any content deemed “extremist.”
Qasim said that if he was to go two months without changing the photo, Mahsut should assume he had been sent to a camp. He changed the photo regularly for around six months, she said, before stopping suddenly in late May of 2020.
Repeated efforts by Mahsut to determine what happened to Qasim revealed little information until she called a telephone number he had once shared with her.
The person she spoke with said that Qasim had learned he would be interned because he was born in the year 2000, thus falling within an age range for Uyghur men that is considered “dangerous” by authorities. A recent leak of a prisoner list from a Chinese internment camp analyzed by a U.S. human rights group listed being young as an attribute that drew police attention.
The person on the other end of the phone said Qasim had killed himself on May 27, 2020.
Fear of detention
According to Mahsut, she had received audio messages from Qasim in Fujian prior to being contacted by police, saying that he knew of several peers in Yengisar who had been taken to the camps “for no reason”—including his 16-year-old cousin Muhammed Memtimin. She said he had explored ways that he could flee China, despite having no passport, and had asked her for advice on how to do so.
Qasim was aware of how the campaign of extralegal incarceration in the XUAR had ramped up in 2018 and 2019, and believed that it was only a matter of time before he would be sent to a camp, she said.
He initially considered a route to Tajikistan or Kazakhstan, which border the XUAR, but feared strict controls on movement by Uyghurs within his home region, according to Mahsut. Qasim had also contacted a smuggler who said he could ferry him to Hong Kong, from where he could travel to Southeast Asia, but was concerned that he would be unable to continue to another country from increasingly restrictive Chinese island territory.
Qasim traveled home to Yengisar once he came to believe that he had no options to escape the country and—after receiving the call to return to the XUAR by police—his fear grew that evading the authorities would place his family members in jeopardy.
But the source that Mahsut spoke with by telephone after Qasim disappeared in May told her that upon his return to Setil township, the young man was regularly called in to speak with local police.
During one such summoning, said the source, who declined to be named citing fears of reprisal, Qasim and a group of his similarly aged peers had black hoods placed over their heads and were told they would be sent to internment camps.
Speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity, a police officer from a village in Setil verified the incident, saying that during the last week of May, Qasim and 44 others were warned they would be detained in camps for periods of between six months and five years, with the length of their stay “dependent on their behavior.”
“[Of the 44] they let eight of them go after investigations, but the rest of them are still [in detention],” the officer said.
When asked if members of the group had committed any crimes, the officer said, “no, they only watched and shared sensitive materials,” without elaborating.
According to the officer, Qasim was one of the eight released and later took his life “at home.”
Another police officer in Setil confirmed to RFA in a phone call that there was an incident in which a 19-year-old man killed himself in the township in May of this year. He could not provide more details.
A justice department employee in Setil, however, told RFA that a young man by the name of Ibrahim Qasim died by suicide in the township in May.
The employee rattled off a list of Uyghurs from Setil who were born after the 1980s who were to be placed in camps that included Nureli, born in 1999; Gulhumar Tahir, born in 1995; and Ruqiye Qeyyum, born in 1996.
When asked the name of the young man who killed himself from among them, she said “Ibrahim Qasim.”
‘Sake of social stability’
While RFA was unable to confirm whether authorities planned to send Qasim to a camp because of his age, a police officer in Setil township confirmed that people—particularly males—between the ages of 16 and 45 are broadly considered in the target age range for internment.
“People between the ages of 16 and 45 are [being sent to camps] so that they don’t get locked up in jail, and for the sake of social stability,” he said.
“They’re being educated in the political system and Chinese language.”
Uyghurs in the XUAR who are not detained are subjected to near-constant high-tech surveillance and repressive policies that restrict their ability to use their own language, practice their religion, and honor their cultural traditions.
Chinese officials have said the camps are centers for vocational training. However, reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said more than 2,000 detainees in the XUAR’s Aksu (Akesu) prefecture discovered on a recently leaked list had initially been flagged by a big data program called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) before being evaluated by officials and sent to internment camps.
The so-called “Aksu List,” which HRW said provided further insights that China’s repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the XUAR is bolstered by technology, “strongly suggests that the vast majority of the people flagged by the IJOP system are detained for everyday lawful, non-violent behavior,” according to the group.
Among the activities that led to detention were studying the Qur’an without state permission, allowing one’s children to study the Qur’an, reciting the Qur’an, wearing religious clothing or having a long beard, or going on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia without state permission, it said.
Other behaviors HRW noted included “using suspicious software,” including proxy servers and Virtual Private Networks,” and “being young; that is ‘born after the 1980s.’”