Apr 12, 2022 - World

Exclusive: Former Xinjiang prisoner arrives in U.S. as key witness to abuses

A photo of the Kyrgyz family from Xinjiang on a plane
Ovalbek Turdakun, his wife Zhyldyz Uraalieva, and their child on a flight out of Kyrgyzstan. Photo: IPVM

A Christian Chinese national who spent 10 months in a Xinjiang detention camp has arrived in the United States after months of behind-the-scenes lobbying by U.S. lawmakers, human rights activists and international lawyers.

Why it matters: The man, Ovalbek Turdakun, will provide evidence that international human rights lawyers say is vital to the case they have submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor arguing that China has committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

  • Ovalbek and his wife and child were authorized to enter the U.S. on significant public benefit parole, which permits entry for special purposes such as testifying in a proceeding but does not grant immigration status, because of the value of the testimony they are expected to give.

What he's saying: "I feel so happy to safely arrive with my family in America. For us, this means finally realizing a long-held hope," Ovalbek, who navigated multiple Asian border crossings and months in diplomatic limbo, told Axios shortly after he and his family landed at Dulles International Airport on April 8.

  • "First, I'm grateful to our God. I'm also grateful to the U.S. government and the friends who helped us the whole time. We would not have been able to safely arrive in America without their help."

The big picture: Ovalbek is a unique witness to Chinese government repression in Xinjiang, according to international lawyers, U.S. officials and others with knowledge of the case.

  • He is an ethnic Kyrgyz. Though Uyghurs are the most populous ethnic group targeted for detention, several other groups — including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Hui — who live in Xinjiang have also faced detention and other forms of repression.
  • Ovalbek is the first Christian detained in the camps to come forward publicly about his experience. The Chinese government has claimed the camps in Xinjiang are intended to deradicalize Islamic extremists, but people without religious affiliation and a small number of Christians are known to have been detained as well.
  • He has also studied law. While held in the detention camp, Ovalbek says he carefully observed actions by Chinese authorities with an eye to what could be potential violations of international law, according to Conor Healy, government director at surveillance technology trade publication IPVM whose work on Xinjiang first brought him into contact with Ovalbek and his family.
  • Those details may include the precise layout of the camp where Ovalbek was detained, the treatment to which detainees have been subjected, and information on the technology used to surveil them, which Ovalbek discusses in video interviews conducted and recorded by Healy and viewed by Axios.
  • The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

Details: Ovalbek was detained in February 2018 by Chinese authorities in southwestern Xinjiang's Ulugqat County who stated he had stayed longer than permitted on a previous trip to Kyrgyzstan, according to a record of detention viewed by Axios and Healy's interviews with Ovalbek.

  • In the video interviews, Ovalbek said he was subjected to multiple "interrogations," during which guards restrained him so tightly it cut off circulation to his arms and legs.
  • He said he and other detainees were locked in tiger chairs — devices commonly used in China to torture inmates during interrogations — for hours at a time and shocked with electric prods when they fell asleep or tried to readjust their bodies.
  • Interrogators repeatedly questioned his loyalty to China over his marriage to a Kyrgyz woman, he said.
  • Detainees were also given injections billed as vaccinations, but inmates who received shots soon became ill, Ovalbek said, with symptoms including an inability to raise their arms, loss of hearing and fluids leaking from their ears. Ovalbek said he lost the ability to walk for months after the injection and had to be carried around by other detainees.
  • Due to the secrecy of the camps, Axios was unable to independently verify aspects of Ovalbek's story. Healy interviewed Ovalbek and his wife, who visited him in the camp, according to a document dated April 2018 and viewed by Axios. The conditions and treatment Ovalbek described are consistent with other rare accounts from people who have been detained.
  • The Kyrgyz Embassy in D.C. did not respond to a request for comment.

After Ovalbek's release from a camp in November 2018, he was held under house arrest for about a year. In December 2019, he left Xinjiang with his wife and child and crossed into Kyrgyzstan on foot, according to Healy.

  • The Kyrgyz government granted Ovalbek a special residence permit for ethnic Kyrgyz but then stopped renewing it, putting him at risk of deportation back to China.
  • Ovalbek and his family got support in Washington from two key members of Congress: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the top Republican on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a House panel that works to elevate human rights issues across the government.
  • Rubio and Smith both pressed the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to expedite the family's travel to the U.S., according to two sources familiar with their case.
  • "I am thrilled that the [Ovalbek] family has arrived safely in the United States," Smith told Axios in a statement. "Once they have settled in, I anticipate hearing testimony on Xinjiang's forced labor camps."
  • Axios spoke briefly with Ovalbek but did not discuss details of the case directly with him.
Data: Mapbox; Map: Will Chase/Axios
Data: Mapbox; Map: Will Chase/Axios

After hearing about Ovalbek's situation, Healy traveled to Kyrgyzstan in December 2021 and worked on the ground there with several of Ovalbek's American friends to help the family obtain a tourist visa to an undisclosed third country, which is not being named to preserve the safety of people there, Healy told Axios.

  • Healy and Ovalbek's American friends then traveled with the family into that country, to help prevent Kyrgyz authorities from deporting them back to China at the border, and helped them file paperwork with the State Department requesting entry to the United States.
  • The State Department referred Axios to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and said it could not share personal information regarding immigration status.
  • DHS, which reviews significant public benefit matters, would not comment on any specific case, but said in a statement that officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services "determine significant public benefit parole requests on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all of the circumstances presented in a case."

Between the lines: China is not an ICC member, but the case currently being prepared by international lawyers aims to establish ICC jurisdiction by focusing on the Chinese government's repression of Xinjiang residents living in Tajikistan, which is an ICC member state, and demonstrating this is a larger pattern affecting other countries as well.

  • A 2021 report by D.C.-based advocacy group Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said the Chinese government was pushing countries to deport Uyghurs and other former Xinjiang residents back to China, often through pressure on residence status.
  • UHRP said they identified 75 such cases in Kyrgyzstan between 2001 and 2020, with more than half occurring in 2017 and later.

What's happening: Rodney Dixon, a lawyer with U.K.-based Temple Garden Chambers who works on human rights and transnational repression cases, is compiling evidence to establish ICC jurisdiction based on ICC case law.

  • Dixon has submitted evidence relating to forced deportations of Uyghurs and other Turkic groups from Central Asia back to China and Chinese security officials allegedly operating in Tajikistan to facilitate those deportations. Dixon said they have identified approximately 3,000 Uyghurs in Tajikistan who have been subject to deportation.
  • "If Chinese security agents come into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and are arresting people there and bringing them back into China to put them into camps — the ICC has jurisdiction over the entire crime," Dixon told Axios. "It’s both the arrests and deportations and the enforced disappearances and inhumane acts that are perpetrated when they get to China."
  • Ovalbek will be the first person included in the case submitted to the ICC to go public with what happened to him in Xinjiang and in Kyrgyzstan. His evidence is vital, Dixon said, because he has unique information from his time in the camp in China and because his experiences fit into a pattern of Chinese authorities targeting people in other countries.

What to watch: In December 2020, the ICC prosecutor declined to open an investigation into the deportations on the basis of insufficient evidence to establish jurisdiction, but indicated that further evidence could be submitted for consideration.

  • Such evidence has since been filed with the prosecutor, and it is currently being reviewed to determine whether an ICC investigation can be opened.

Editor's note: This story was corrected to show that the preferred romanization of the former detainee's name is Ovalbek Turdakun, not Obulbek Turdaqun.

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