What Almas Nizamidin knows of his wife’s arrest and disappearance is second-hand: the harried reports relayed by his relatives as it rapidly unfolded.
The police came for Buzainafu Abudourexiti at her home in Ürümqi as she was travelling to a doctor’s appointment on 29 March 2017. Her family called, she cancelled her appointment and hurried home.
There, the police shoved a bag over her head, forced her into a car and drove her away. Her husband, her family, and her friends have not seen her since.
She remains incarcerated in Xinjiang Women’s Prison, sentenced to seven years’ jail on “disturbing social order” charges her family says are baseless.
The purpose of the doctor’s visit that day was to confirm what she’d earlier discovered with a home test: she was pregnant with her first child.
The fate of that unborn baby is unknown. But half a decade and half a world away, Nizamidin is certain his child was lost.
“My wife was newly pregnant, very new. Maybe she was shocked by the arrest and lost the baby or maybe … I believe they performed a forced abortion. That’s what they do to Uyghur women, to our people in that place.”
‘I have to speak out’
It’s a sunny Adelaide morning when the Guardian speaks with Nizamidin under the shade of a eucalypt, in a park close to his home.
“It’s a very quiet city,” he says. “But beautiful, very peaceful. Every day, I love it.”
It is a joyous day for the Uyghur community of 300-or-so families in the city. That afternoon there is a wedding, a “big celebration”, Nizamidin says, a chance for his people to be together in happiness.
But these are occasions laden with sadness for Nizamidin. He has not seen his wife in nearly five years.
“Even the photos I have, they are from five years ago,” he says quietly. “Sometimes, I feel really guilty. My parents, my love, they are forced into detention. They can’t even see the sunshine. I feel really guilty for them, that I can’t bring them here.
“It hurts. Always. Even if you’re living in a free country, inside you’re not free. Something is catching you, you know? That’s why I speak out, for them, I have to.”
Nizamidin and Abudourexiti were high school sweethearts in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, in China’s northwest.
The province is the ancestral home of China’s Uyghur people, a Sunni Muslim population of nearly 12 million people of Turkic origins, who have faced decades of systemic political and cultural oppression by the Chinese state.
In 2009, protests over worker deaths turned riotous in Ürümqi, and the resulting chaos left hundreds of Han Chinese and Uyghur people dead.
Then in his final year of high school, Nizamidin had been a part of the initial demonstrations and his family feared the brutal police crackdown that was spreading across the city. Already repressive in Ürümqi “it became like an open prison”.
His parents urged him to flee, hurriedly scraping together a large chunk of their savings – the equivalent of $40,000, “enough for a house in China” – to pay for a student visa and travel to Australia. They urged him to seek asylum there.
Nizamidin’s claim for protection was recognised by Australia in 2010: he faced a well-founded fear of being persecuted in his homeland, and could not be returned there. He became an Australian citizen in 2014.
Throughout it all, he and Abudourexiti remained dedicated to each other. She studied, first in Wuhan, then at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. On graduation, she and Nizamidin reunited – and married – in their home town in 2016.
The couple applied for a partner visa so Abudourexiti could join her new husband in Australia.
On 14 February – Valentine’s Day – 2017, Nizamidin surprised Abudourexiti with an unannounced visit to China. He stayed a month, before returning to Australia: “I wanted to rent a house, to get some furniture, make everything ready. We were making plans”.
At the end of the next month Nizamidin received the phone call: his wife had been arrested. No one could tell him where she was.
A frantic return to China – flying first to Urumqi, then Aksu, 1,000 kilometres away, and back to Urumqi – yielded little information from officials, save for vague assertions on her whereabouts and welfare from bribed police.
Nizamidin was told his wife had been arrested on a political charge – its exact nature was a “state secret” – and she had no right to legal representation. Abudourexiti was held for three months without trial, before, at the end of June, she was brought before a court, and tried and convicted in a mass trial alongside dozens of other women, none of whom were allowed lawyers.
She was sentenced to seven years in prison for “assembling a crowd to disturb social order”. The allegations against his wife are a “groundless and blatant fabrication”, Nizamidin says. His wife is introverted to the point of shyness, he says, and the allegations “impossible”. Nizamidin believes his wife was arrested because of her Islamic studies in Egypt, and says her detention is part of a broader suppression of religious freedom in Xinjiang by the Chinese government.
The day after Abudourexiti’s sentencing, Nizamidin was summoned to the local police station. He was told he had 24 hours to leave China or he would be arrested. He was told he should tell no one about his wife’s detention.
‘We know what’s happening’
Nizamidin has defiantly refused to do that. He has spoken out with the support of Amnesty International, and told his story to journalists. Last year, he gave evidence to a UK House of Commons inquiry into detention camps in Xinjiang.
Nizamidin has urged the Australian government to do more to help reunite his family. Every year he visits Canberra, tirelessly walking the corridors of parliament house, beseeching political support from ministers and backbenchers alike.
“I talk, and people listen, and they feel very sorry for me. But I don’t know why they can’t follow that with action.”
Nizamidin’s father left Xinjiang for the US, fearing increasing repression in Xinjiang. But in January 2018, Nizamidin’s mother, a retired former maths teacher, was detained too. The charge against her was identical to that laid against her daughter-in-law, “disturbing the social order”, but she was never tried, sentenced or sent to prison.
Instead she was arbitrarily detained for 22 months, forced to undergo ‘re-education’, to work in a factory. She was released, after nearly two years, to home confinement. She cannot leave China, and remains under surveillance. Her communication with her son remains monitored by the Chinese state.
In 2019, Abudourexiti was granted a single telephone call, a harried three-minute conversation with Nizamidin’s mother, during which Abudourexiti sobbed and repeatedly apologised. “She was crying,” Nizamidin says. “And she was saying, ‘sorry, it’s my fault, I shouldn’t do these things’. They were forcing her to say something.
“They gave her only three minutes, just to let me know she’s alive.”
Nizamidin says commitments from countries like Australia to ‘diplomatically’ boycott February’s winter Olympics in Beijing are desperately insufficient.
Australia will still compete in the Games, but will not send any officials or diplomats as a protest against China’s human rights record. Nizamidin says Australia should boycott entirely, send no athletes, refuse any participation which might give the games legitimacy.
“China is committing genocide, is killing people, and the world wants to play games with China? The world must boycott.
“They shouldn’t join the Games, they shouldn’t even broadcast the sport on TV. As long as countries join the games, they are supporting the genocide. And all the governments, everyone around the world, they know exactly what’s happening to Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”
Australia, he says, needs to call out what overwhelming evidence before it shows to be true.
“I believe that the Australian government can do more than what it is doing. It should start by accusing China of committing genocide. Because we know that is happening.”
A bill from independent senator Rex Patrick to ban imports of goods made through the use of forced labour – designed out of concern over products made in Xinjiang forced labour camps – passed the Australian senate in August. But it does not have government support, and won’t pass the lower house to become law.
The economic levers are powerful, Nizamidin argues. Consumers have a power rarely realised, he says.
“Boycott ‘made in China’, that’s what we can all do. Don’t buy any products from China. Maybe they are made by my wife or my mother. We don’t know.”
The evidence of Chinese crimes against humanity is stark and growing.
In January, the US government said it had determined there was an “ongoing … genocide” occurring in China. “We are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” then secretary of state Mike Pompeo said.
Congress this week passed the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act, which bans the import of all goods from Xinjiang unless companies offer verifiable proof their production did not involve slavery.
Also this week, an independent UK-based Uyghur Tribunal released a judgment that found Uyghurs living in Xinjiang province were subjected to crimes against humanity, including genocide, directed by the Chinese state. The tribunal found evidence of torture, as well as suppression of births in an effort to destroy all or part of the Uyghur population in China.
Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, said while the ‘tools’ with which countries could respond to Chinese repression were still inadequate, there were more available now “than there were one, three, five years ago”.
“We are starting to slowly see different and important actors say ‘there are going to be consequences, there are going to be costs’.
“Governments that are clearly shown to be committing crimes against humanity must face consequences. It shouldn’t matter that it’s the second-most powerful nation on earth: no state is above the law.”
Amnesty International has described Xinjiang as a “dystopian hellscape” for hundreds of thousands of detained Uyghurs. Amnesty campaigner Tim O’Connor said one of the most difficult aspects of what was happening inside Xinjiang was that independent observers and investigators were not permitted into the region.
“Amnesty has collected a huge amount of first-person evidence, including the experiences of Almas and his wife Buzainafu, which is vitally important for the world to understand the scale and human cost of the hundreds of thousands of Muslim minority men and women subjected to mass internment and torture.”
China has consistently denied accusations of oppression in Xinjiang and said its camps were designed to offer Chinese language lessons, vocational training and job support, as well as to combat religious extremism.
The Chinese state has sought to discredit accusers, such as Nizamidin, and promotes Xinjiang as a “wonderful land”.
It has consistently refused journalists and human rights groups unfettered access to the region and dismisses investigative findings and Uyghur testimony as lies.
Questions put by the Guardian to the Chinese government regarding Abudourexiti’s detention received no response.
In Adelaide, Nizamidin longs to see his wife again. He says he does not fear retribution for speaking out. “They have taken my wife, my child, and my mother from me. What else can they do to me?”