China arrests family of Kazakh singer supposedly contacted by foreign reporter


Family members punished for failing to stop her from communicating with purported AP reporter

China arrests family of Kazakh singer supposedly contacted by foreign reporter

Zhanargul Zhumatai, an ethnic Kazakh musician in the Xinjiang city of Urumqi, told RFA in early January that she has been targeted by authorities after speaking out against the government appropriation of ethnic Kazakh herding communities’ land to make way for highways and hydropower stations around Urumqi.

Chinese authorities have arrested the mother and three siblings of an outspoken Kazakh singer and reeducation camp survivor after she supposedly spoke with foreign journalists, police and eyewitnesses told Radio Free Asia.

The 47-year old singer, Zhanargul Zhumatai, was arrested Feb. 10 in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, after she received a request for a “media interview” from someone claiming to be an Associated Press correspondent, according to the Kazahstan-based rights group Atajurt.

Her family members – her mother, sister and two brothers — were arrested on Feb. 13, according to police and an eyewitness.

Before they were arrested, Zhanargul’s family members were taken to a neighborhood committee meeting and publicly criticized them for not stopping her from speaking with foreign reporters, and accused them of helping her do it, according to an eyewitness who did not want to be identified for security reasons and a police officer.

“We arrested them because they did not stop Zhanargul from communicating with foreign reporters and allowing her to communicate with them conveniently,” a police officer said.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Zhanargul did in fact speak with a foreign journalist. Calls earlier this month to the phone number given out by the purported AP reporter who contacted her on Feb. 8 resulted in a message saying the number was “temporarily unavailable.”

Another officer from the police station in Benfangguo Bazar in Urumqi county confirmed that the station was currently detaining Zhanargul’s mother, elder sister, and two elder brothers, but could not confirm or deny that their detainment had anything to do with Zhanargul’s. 

Targeted for speaking out

In previous interviews with RFA, Zhanargul said she was being targeted for speaking out against the government’s appropriation of ethnic Kazakh herding communities’ land to make way for highways and hydropower stations around Urumqi. 

She also said authorities sent her to a concentration camp between 2017 and 2019 when she refused to apologize for a letter she wrote to the local government complaining about it. 

Sources estimate that Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have detained hundreds of ethnic Kazakhs in recent years, freezing their bank accounts and assets pending “investigation,” also for “extremist” behavior that includes normal Islamic practices.

Arresting the entire family based on the actions of one member is an example of the Chinese government’s “unjust, cruel, and inhuman” policies toward ethnic minorities in the Uyghur region, Danish researcher Rune Stenberg, also known as Yusupjan, told RFA. 

Zhanargul had been in communication with Yusupjan, who told RFA on Feb. 13 that at times when he was not able to reach her, he would sometimes be able to get in touch with her by calling her family members. 

Zhanargul’s telephone was off on February 10th. But her elder sister’s phone was on. I could speak with her twice that day,” he said. “Her phone was off yesterday too. I think the police might have [also] detained her elder sister.”

The arrests of Zhanargul’s family members for her actions was not surprising to Yusupjan, who described the Chinese government’s Uyghur policy as “punishing everyone in the family if one person in the family makes a mistake.”

He said he had communicated with international organizations and diplomats to bring their attention to Zhanargul’s case and said this type of punishment would not produce the result the Chinese government wanted to achieve, adding that it was likely that Zhanargul would be sent to prison and her family released after they were done intimidating them.

“What they are doing to Zhanargul is not compatible with Chinese law,” Yusupjan said, urging the international community to pressure Beijing to release her. “What they say in theory does not match what they do in practice.”

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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