Unemployment is one of the biggest challenges facing the Uyghur people in East Turkestan.
Authorities have rounded up some 100 ethnic minority Uyghurs in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan in recent weeks amid a hunt for suspects fleeing to the Lao border following a deadly clash, according to local sources and police.
The arrests came after authorities in the restive northwestern Xinjiang region—home to most of China’s 10 million mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs—dispatched police hundreds of miles south to Yunnan to pursue seven wanted men from Xinjiang's violence-hit Hanerik township.
At least 30 Uyghurs were apprehended at the town of Mohan on the border with Laos in Yunnan’s Mengla county in late September, and scores of others were detained around the province in recent weeks, a Uyghur merchant in the province told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“So far around 100 Uyghurs have been detained in all of Yunnan,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They have been detained on suspicion of trying to escape across the border or of helping suspects named on the wanted list.”
The merchant, who witnessed a group of Uyghurs arrested by Yunnan police in Mohan being transferred to Xinjiang police, said eight were captured in the town on Sept. 24 and 22 were arrested there earlier in the month.
Some of the 100 held were in Yunnan because they were trying to escape across the border into Laos without passports, but most were living there and working at restaurants or as street vendors, he said.
“Women and children were among the detainees,” he said.
Xinjiang police contacted by RFA in Hotan and the Yunnan capital Kunming confirmed forces sent to the province had detained Uyghurs in a search for suspects wanted in connection with the Hanerik incident in Xinjiang's Hotan prefecture in June. But they refused to say how many were held.
On June 28, amid a spate of violent incidents in Xinjiang this spring and early summer, police in Hanerik fired on hundreds of Uyghurs protesting the arrest of a young religious leader and the closure of a mosque.
Chinese officials and media have acknowledged the incident, saying 15 people may have been killed and 50 others injured.
Exile Uyghur rights groups have said the incident was the result of an alleged “terror” raid and that police responded with a harsh crackdown.
Chinese authorities blame outbreaks of violence in the region on Uyghur "terrorists," but rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against the Uyghur minority.
According to the merchant, police have distributed a poster of seven men wanted as suspects in the Hanerik violence among the Uyghur community in Yunnan.
The names of the men on the poster include Memtili Tursunniyaz, Abdurehim Memet, Dawut Amut, Ablimit Sadir, Ababekri Memet, and two others.
“All of them are from Hanerik,” the merchant said.
Hanerik police station chief Memtimin Metqasim said authorities have offered a 400,000 yuan [U.S. $6,500] reward for information about suspects on the wanted list issued by the Xinjiang public security bureau.
“We are still searching for suspects from the Hanerik incident who escaped and tried to go abroad,” he said.
Another police officer at the station said police were looking for two men named Memtili Tursunniyaz and Yusup Ehmed Qadir and “many others” who had “killed nine Han immigrant workers” and escaped from Hanerik.
'A lot of suspects' detained
Eli Qasim, the police officer leading the team of Xinjiang police in Yunnan, said some of his forces were in the Mohan border area to search for suspects but refused to give details on the goal or scale of the operation.
“We detained a lot of suspects,” he told RFA, speaking from Kunming.
The team had been sent from Xinjiang to work on a “special case,” according to a police officer at the Hotan prefectural police department.
The merchant raised concerns that some of those arrested in the roundup could be unfairly punished in connection with the Hanerik unrest.
“I believe some of the detainees could get life sentences or executed because they were involved Hanerik incident in Hotan,” he said.
In March 2010, Laos deported a group of seven Uyghur refugees who were fleeing the country folloowing July 5, 2009 unrest in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
The unrest, which was China’s worst ethnic violence in decades, had prompted a clampdown that included large-scale sweeps on Uyghur homes and a five-month Internet blackout.
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.