A Uighur woman who was detained at internment camps in China’s Xinjiang region has arrived safely in the United States, a Uighur human rights group said on Saturday, ending a period of monthslong uncertainty over whether she would be forcibly repatriated back to China from her home in Kazakhstan.
Tursunay Ziyawudun had initially settled in Kazakhstan with her husband, who is a Kazakh citizen, after spending a grueling 10 months locked up without ever being charged with a crime. But last year, the Kazakh government told her she would have to return to China to apply for a new visa as a procedural matter. Returning to the country would have likely meant she would be detained again.
BuzzFeed News reported on her case in February.
“We are tremendously relieved that Tursunay is now safe in the United States,” said Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, in a statement, saying that she had already arrived safely, and that his organization is helping her resettle and access medical treatment for a serious health condition.
China has detained more than a million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in mass internment camps since late 2016, according to independent estimates. The government has said the detentions were for “vocational training,” but former detainees, including Ziyawudun, have made clear they were brought to camps by force and said they endured humiliation, hunger, beatings, and regular interrogations, among other abuses.
The Chinese government claimed in December that those who went through the “vocational training” program had “graduated,” but a recent BuzzFeed News investigation found instead that construction of large, purpose-built internment camps and prisons is ongoing.
Ziyawudun’s lawyer said she believed the press coverage helped her case.
“Her situation required that her story be made public,” Aina Shormanbayeva, Ziyawudun’s lawyer in Kazakhstan, told BuzzFeed News.
Ziyawudun is among a small number of former detainees who have left China and spoken publicly about their experiences. The Washington, DC–based Uyghur Human Rights Project said her house had been set on fire “in suspicious circumstances” in February, after she started speaking out about her story. (Ziyawudun’s lawyer confirmed her house had burned down at the time.)
She later traveled to Istanbul for medical treatment, Shormanbayeva said, before receiving permission to travel to the US. She is still in the process of seeking refugee status in Kazakhstan, but Shormanbayeva said there are doubts that Kazakh government will grant her that status.
But, she added, the risk of Ziyawudun being forcibly sent back to China is gone.
“I hope that in the US she will be safe,” her lawyer said.