A Uighur American man who met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says his family members have been jailed in apparent retaliation for the meeting.
Pompeo met with four Uighur men and women on March 27, including Virginia-based Ferkat Jawdat.
Jawdat, 26, discovered the news about his aunt and her husband — who he said lived in Ili, in the northwest of the far-western Chinese region of Xinjiang — through WeChat messages sent between two people he is close to. His aunt and uncle had been held in an internment camp since March 2018, but they now have been sent to a prison in a different part of the region for eight years, he said.
Jawdat shared the WeChat messages with BuzzFeed News, but we are not revealing the names or locations of the people at Jawdat’s request.
“I’m feeling very sad now… they took them to a different city, they weren’t in Ili last night,” said a person who had heard directly about the cases of Jawdat’s aunt and uncle in the messages he shared. “Eight years.”
Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims have been targeted by the Chinese government in a campaign of mass surveillance and internment that has ensnared upward of a million people in Xinjiang. The government says the camps are for education and vocational training.
Jawdat said the news about his aunt and uncle, retired executives at a Chinese state-owned firm, had plagued him since his meeting with Pompeo.
“For the past few days I’ve been thinking about what to do. I don’t want to stop [public advocacy], because there’s no guarantee they’ll release anyone,” he said. “But my name has become huge back home now. People are getting in trouble because of my stuff here.”
In the WeChat messages the person said Jawdat should stop speaking out in public in the United States — or he might never hear from his mother again.
Jawdat’s mother has been detained since Feb. 6, 2018, Jawdat said. His father successfully obtained asylum in the United States in 2006, but she was unable to join him because she could not obtain a Chinese passport, though Jawdat said she was approved for a US visa.
“China is using my mother and my relatives as hostages to silence me as they did with many other activists,” Jawdat said. “But I will not stop my activities until they release every single person in those camps and let my mother come to the United States to reunite with us.”
Jawdat wrote on Twitter last week that his relatives had been jailed, and Pompeo referenced the apparent retaliation in an interview with Fox Business.
“This is the kind of thing that they do to impact his behavior here in America,” Pompeo said of China. “It’s unacceptable. This kind of behavior, these human rights abuses are tragic, they’re historic.”
It is not uncommon for dissidents in China to face retaliation or pressure after public meetings with diplomats.
Pompeo also met with a Uighur woman who said she had escaped an internment camp as well as two other Uighurs whose relatives have been detained or criminally sentenced in Xinjiang, according to a State Department statement. One of them was Gulchehra Hoja, a Uighur American reporter for Radio Free Asia whose family has faced apparent retaliation for her often critical reporting in the United States.
The Trump administration has been vocal in criticizing China’s treatment of Uighurs, but politicians on both the left and the right are calling for the administration to take tougher measures in response to China’s policy in Xinjiang.
On April 3, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called on administration officials to impose sanctions on Chinese entities and officials “complicit in or directing” human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Last week Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota called the treatment of Uighurs “crimes against humanity,” adding that “words alone are not enough.”
The Trump administration’s criticism of China’s policy toward Uighurs comes as US officials work to pressure China in ongoing trade negotiations.
Officials from the two countries met in Washington last week in the latest round of ongoing trade talks, which seek to end a months-long trade war between the world’s two largest economies. Trump has said he’s hoping for an “epic deal.”