Western researchers estimate that at least a million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities were interned in Xinjiang (northwest), a Chinese region bereaved by attacks until the mid-2010s.
Their families often have little information about them, trials generally taking place behind closed doors and access to court documents being complicated.
So it came as a shock to Ms. Abdureshid, a 33-year-old Uighur exiled in Istanbul, when she was able to see a directory of prisoners for the first time, allegedly the result of a leak from Xinjiang police records.
She was thus able to learn snippets of information about her younger brother Memetili, whom she already knew, via the Chinese embassy in Turkey, that he had been imprisoned.
This woman now knows that he was sentenced to 15 years and 11 months in prison, in particular for “preparation (of acts) violent and terrorist” and imprisoned in Aksu, a city in Xinjiang.
“It’s much better than not knowing where he is,” she told AFP from Turkey, where she has lived since 2015. “It brings me a little happiness” .
“Sometimes I check the weather to see if it’s cold or hot where he is.”
– Missing parents –
Xinjiang is populated by around 26 million people, nearly half of whom are Uyghurs, who cohabit with many other ethnic groups such as the Hans (the majority ethnic group in China), the Kazakhs or the Mongols.
The database, which the press had not hitherto reported, lists more than 10,000 convicts from the canton of Konasheher, in the south-west of the region.
Nursimangul Abdureshid says she has no news of her parents, also convicted on terrorism-related charges, or of her older brother, who she believes is also imprisoned.
Even if the authenticity of the document is not confirmed, it sometimes constitutes for the Uyghurs of the diaspora the first scrap of information on their relatives.
Several data are indicated there: surname, first name, ethnicity, identity number, address, duration and reason for the prison sentence, place of imprisonment.
According to this list, hundreds of people were detained in each canton listed. Sometimes there are several people from the same household.
“It’s not very targeted anti-terrorism. It’s like knocking on every door and picking up a certain number of people,” said sinologist David Tobin, from the University of Sheffield (England).
“It confirms that they are arbitrarily targeting a community,” he said.
The people listed were sentenced for various reasons: “assembling a group with a view to disturbing public order”, “apology for terrorism”, “promotion of extremism” or even “participation in a terrorist organization”.
– Wave of attacks –
According to official figures, the number of people sentenced by courts in Xinjiang jumped between 2014 and 2018, from 21,000 to 133,000.
With the intensification of the campaign against Islamist extremism, called “Strike hard”, the proportion of prison sentences greater than or equal to five years rose from 27% in 2016 to 87% in 2017.
A Uyghur linguist and activist who lives in Norway, Abduweli Ayup, told AFP that he recognized around 30 neighbors or relatives on the list.
Most of them are shopkeepers or farmers, but he says he also saw the name of a politician and a chemistry professor.
“In Oghusak, my father’s native village, and in Opal, my mother’s, you can see that every household has an inmate,” he says.
One of his cousins was sentenced for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”.
“He was a simple farmer. If asked what terrorism is, he couldn’t even read the word.”
A second database lists around 20,000 Uyghurs, whose detentions ranged between 2008 and 2015. They are mostly from the Kashgar or Aksu regions.
A period during which Xinjiang was hit by a wave of attacks, attributed by the authorities to separatists and Uyghur Islamists.
The majority of the people listed are thus accused of links with terrorism.
– “Upset” –
Several hundred are accused of having participated in the 2009 riots in the regional capital, Urumqi, which left nearly 200 dead, the vast majority of Han beaten or stabbed by Uyghurs.
Around 900 people are accused of making explosives.
A Uighur living in Europe and wishing to remain anonymous told AFP that he recognized five friends on the second list.
“I was overwhelmed to recognize so many people,” he says, adding that he went abroad in 2015 for his studies.
“Before I left, they had arrested 20 or 30 people from my small town. My mother was always afraid that I would be arrested too, especially when a police car drove past our house.”
He claims to have had no news of his parents since their arrest in 2017.
When questioned, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared “not to be aware of the personal situations” of the individuals mentioned by AFP.
“We have repeatedly refuted the fabricated lies of certain organizations and individuals,” he said.
“Society lives in harmony and stability in Xinjiang” and “residents of all ethnicities fully enjoy their rights,” says the ministry.
In her small apartment filled with green plants in Istanbul, Nursimangul Abdureshid tries to maintain a semblance of normal life.
“I try to smile (…) But sometimes I spend the night crying”.