detention center building

‘I feel quite desperate right now’: In leaked databases, Uyghurs search for names of the missing

Uyghurs in the diaspora are now going through the lists from leaked documents to try and identify their missing relatives. For many, it’s the first time they’ve been able to confirm what happened to them.

The World

People stand in a guard tower on the perimeter wall of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on April 23, 2021.

Mark Schiefelbein/AP

At first, Abduweli Ayup didn’t see his brother’s name on the list — he didn’t want to.

“I wanted everything to not be true,” said the longtime Uyghur activist and linguist who is based in Norway.

Ayup is one of many Uyghurs living in the diaspora who are combing through the names of the Xinjiang Police Files. The leaked prison data from China’s Xinjiang region shows the names and photos of approximately 22,000 people arrested during China’s “Strike Hard” campaign, alongside their charges and sentences.

Related: Leaked Xinjiang police files are a 'devastating' glimpse of abuses against Uyghur detainees in China, expert says

Under the auspices of preventing terrorism, the Chinese government has sentenced an estimated 1.8 million people to prison, forced labor or mind-numbing “reeducation camps.”

The Xinjiang police files were published online last week by the US-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and analyzed by Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist known for his work to uncover human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The files were obtained by a third-party hacking attempt, the website says, by an individual who “acted on a solely individual basis, attached no conditions to their provision or publication and wishes to remain anonymous due to personal safety concerns.”

Internal police documents detail training drills and include orders that guards shoot escaping detainees. Speeches from officials show regular visits and directives from top party officials, eliminating any doubt that Beijing is unaware of the violence against the detainees.

Strikingly, the documents come from Public Security Bureau computer systems in only two counties: Kashgar Prefecture and Tekes Prefecture.

Related: Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia risk deportation to China

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, called the leak “lies and rumors” and the “latest example of the anti-China forces’ smearing of Xinjiang.”

But the Uyghurs around the world who have identified their friends and relatives in the documents say that they’re authentic.

‘It’s just like I’m in prison again’

Ayup fled China in 2015 after being arrested and tortured for trying to open Uyghur-language schools for children. Two years later, he spoke to international media outlets about a group of Uyghur students in Egypt who had been arrested and were being processed for deportation to China. They had contacted him, asking for help. 

When Ayup’s brother, a local Communist Party official, was arrested shortly afterward in China, Ayup said, he thought that it may have been retaliation by the Chinese government for his decision to speak out. But he never knew for sure.

“Until now, I didn’t know the real reason. I suspected [it was] because of me, but I didn’t have any evidence.”

Abduweli Ayup, Uyghur activist and linguist who is based in Norway

“Until now, I didn’t know the real reason,” Ayup said. “I suspected [it was] because of me, but I didn’t have any evidence.”

Related: This Uyghur woman was separated from her husband by Chinese authorities. She hasn't given up hope.

The newly leaked documents confirm that party officials recommended that Ayup’s brother be imprisoned just two weeks after Ayup spoke to news organizations about the Uyghur students facing deportation. Ayup’s brother was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Later, Ayup’s brother’s daughter — a student who lived in Japan and was regularly harassed by government agents about her uncle’s activism — was also arrested on a trip back to China. She died in custody.

“It’s just like I’m in prison again,” Ayup said. “I don’t know who will be next.”

Thousands of booking photos show the prisoners’ faces — some crying, some defiant. The youngest is a 14-year-old girl. Ayup said that they're hard to look at.

“This is a nightmare for everyone,” Ayup said. “We have to be strong, and we have to tell the truth … crying and closing yourself [off], it didn’t solve the problem. Only we can fight. We don’t have any [other] option.”

Cut off from communication

In another, separately leaked database of about 11,000 prisoners, one Uyghur woman living abroad recognized 56 people she knew.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said through an interpreter. “These are students, farmworkers, even people who are illiterate.”

Related: US bans some solar products from Xinjiang, citing human rights abuses of Uyghur people

The woman fears for the safety of her relatives in China if she speaks to the press, so her name and country of residence aren’t being used.

“This is the thing that makes me sad the most. Because my eyes see, my ears hear, but I cannot dare to [speak out].”

Unnamed Uyghur woman

“This is the thing that makes me sad the most. Because my eyes see, my ears hear, but I cannot dare to [speak out],” she said.

Like many Uyghurs living in the diaspora, she hasn’t been permitted to speak to her family in China since 2016, and has no way of knowing if they are safe.

Uyghurs living in China may face arrest if they receive phone calls or texts from relatives abroad.

Today, sitting safely in her home in another country, she goes through the database as often as she can, trying to find a name she may have missed before. It’s a small act of remembrance, even though she feels powerless to help.

“I believe none of them are guilty,” she said. “I feel quite desperate right now.”

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