Uighur lawyer Nury Turkel says Australia should sanction Chinese officials

"When I hear people whining about spending time with their parents, I tell them to spend as much time with them as you can. Ring them every day," Turkel says. Jessica Hromas

By Lisa Murray

14 Dec 2018 — 10:45 AM

Nury Turkel is apologetic on the phone. "I'm so sorry. I will be a little late. Don't shoot me." A friend is driving the US-based Uighur activist from Parramatta in western Sydney to lunch in the city and the traffic is terrible.

I watch as the tables in Fish at the Rocks fill up – one group celebrating a birthday, another enjoying a regular catch-up – and wonder if I have chosen the wrong restaurant. With its blue walls, cosy-looking bar and pictures of sail boats, it seems too cheery a setting to talk about what is happening in China, where up to 1 million Uighur Muslims have been detained in the western province of Xinjiang for "re-education". Turkel, chairman of the Uighur Human Rights Project (UHRP), insisted I choose the venue with the only stipulation that he doesn't eat pork – more out of habit than for religious reasons – and suggested a seafood restaurant instead.

I spot the 48-year-old rushing up to the restaurant in suit, red tie and sunglasses. He looks more Washington DC lawyer than political activist. Of course, he is both and is in Australia to raise awareness about the plight of Uighurs and pressure the Australian government to take a stronger stand on the mass-detention camps. There are roughly 3000 Uighurs living in Australia, most of them in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. Turkel has spent the past few days talking with many, who have been struggling for months, or in some cases years, to reach their families back in China.

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Nury Turkel: "This situation is untenable. Uighurs are living in a nightmare in China. They are facing an existential threat. Australia cannot just go along as if it is business as usual." Jessica Hromas

After more apologising, we sit down in a corner and order two glasses of chardonnay. I have already ordered a plate of mixed starters: calamari, dumplings, crab cakes and prawns with green papaya salad.

Turkel tells me he hasn't been back to China since 1995, when he left to study in the US, where he eventually sought asylum. His parents are still in Xinjiang and they are both unwell, he confides. His father, 79, who was a professor, has early-stage dementia and diabetes, his mother, who was a successful businesswoman, suffers from anxiety and both have heart problems but he is not in direct contact with them. Like the relatives of many Uighur activists, they have deleted his details from their phones to avoid any trouble at home.

Early last year, Turkel thought about going back to Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road city, for a visit but it was around the time Xinjiang rolled out a series of "de-extremification" policies, banning long beards and Muslim names such as Mohammed, increasing surveillance on Uighur families and confiscating their passports. The US government advised Turkel not to travel so he made the difficult decision to stay away.

"This is the sad reality. I have a beautiful child," says Turkel, who is married to a Turkish-American interior designer and has a two-year-old son. "It may not be worth the risk. I can do a much better job being in the United States speaking out, making contacts and advocating."

The guilt-by-association for those relatives left in Xinjiang makes it hard for activists to be openly critical of China and make public their own personal stories. Turkel's parents have eight grandchildren but have only been able to meet three of them.

"I know the cost but what do I do? Sit on my hands? We have to make peace with it. This is too important." He leans across the table. "This situation is untenable. Uighurs are living in a nightmare in China. They are facing an existential threat. Australia cannot just go along as if it is business as usual."

Photos of Uighurs who have died, gone missing or are in internment camps. Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax Media

Urgency to his advocacy

We stop to order fish. There is noisy chatter and laughter at the other tables. The waiter asks whether Turkel is sure he wants the fish and chips, or would he rather have grilled fish. He sticks with his decision but the triviality of the exchange jars with our conversation. When the waiter leaves, Turkel says: "I have this comfortable life but I can't thoroughly enjoy it."

Later he says: "Holidays are the most difficult. When I hear people whining about spending time with their parents, I tell them to spend as much time with them as you can. Ring them every day."

Turkel was born in a detention centre in Xinjiang. His mother was six months pregnant when she was interned at the height of China's Cultural Revolution – a tumultuous decade up to 1975 when the Communist Party, under Mao Zedong, ran a hardline political campaign against its enemies: intellectuals, capitalists and political activists. Turkel's grandfather had been associated with the Uighur nationalists and his mother was punished as a result. He spent his first four months in a "re-education" camp before they were released.

After that, Turkel says he had a relatively happy childhood. Unlike Uighurs in today's Xinjiang, he was allowed to go to a Uighur school and even though students were made to take Mandarin lessons, Turkel was proud of his high scores believing it would be an advantage in his future working life.

"When I hear people whining about spending time with their parents, I tell them to spend as much time with them as you can. Ring them every day," Turkel says. Jessica Hromas

We are picking at the starters but I am managing to eat more than Turkel who is focused on telling his story. There is an urgency to his advocacy. He fears the current media interest will fade unless celebrities take up the cause. And he doubts if this is likely given the impact Richard Gere's vocal stance on Tibet had on his career. The US actor claims he was dropped from big Hollywood movies as a result.

Turkel says he was prompted to seek asylum in the US after China's deadly crackdown on a series of demonstrations by young Uighurs in February 1997 in north-west Xinjiang, leaving dozens dead and many more injured. The protesters were defending their right to attend social gatherings known as meshrep and some called for independence for the region they refer to as East Turkestan. Chinese authorities responded by arresting thousands in the weeks that followed.

Turkel was living in San Francisco at the time. He was so thankful to his lawyer when asylum was granted that he decided to become one himself and went back to study law. "My dad used to joke that I was a student for life," he says.

In his first week of law school in Washington DC, Turkel sat with his classmates and watched as the Twin Towers came down in the September 11 attacks on the US. "I worried that life would be more difficult for Muslims in America and for Uighurs in China."

Uighur women at a protest in Urumqi last year. AFP

China's aggressive response

The waiter clears our starters as Turkel tells me about his work as a lawyer. He specialises in federal administrative law but has also worked on asylum cases for fellow Uighurs and in 2009 helped defend the 22 Uighurs from China who were held in the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. They had been captured in Afghanistan in 2001 after the US invasion and were all eventually freed without charge and resettled in countries including Albania, Slovakia and Palau by 2013.

It was around 2009 the situation for Uighurs in Xinjiang deteriorated sharply. Protests in the capital Urumqi left scores of mainly Han Chinese people dead, hundreds more injured and buildings and cars destroyed. Chinese authorities responded aggressively and Turkel says it marked the beginning of the current madness.

He says the repression intensified in mid-2016 after Communist Party official Chen Quanguo was transferred from Tibet to Xinjiang and oversaw the building of a network of detention camps – the Chinese insist these are vocational training centres – the scale of which became known this year, taking the Uighur community and foreign governments by surprise.

During this time Turkel became more active in the Uighur community. He co-founded the UHRP and became president of the Uighur American Association before handing over the reins to prominent Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who had been a political prisoner in China but was released to the US on medical grounds. Turkel's brother married Kadeer's daughter and they also live in the US.

"I'm trying to help governments understand the human aspect of this crisis," says Turkel. Jessica Hromas

I'm halfway through my grilled barramundi with chickpea salad but Turkel has barely touched his fish and chips.

He has just spent a few days in Canberra. While his attempts to meet with someone senior in the government were unsuccessful, he did catch up with Greens leader Richard Di Natale and Labor MPs Kimberley Kitching and Michael Danby. Before Danby retires at the election next year, he is trying to have the government introduce an Australian version of the Magnitsky Act, potentially allowing Australia to sanction Chinese officials involved in the mass-detention of Uighurs.

Three Australian citizens were detained in the camps this year but have all been released. Local Uighur representatives believe there are six permanent residents of Australia still detained in Xinjiang and two people with dependent spouse visas also in the camps.

Human aspect of crisis

Turkel is in close contact with the office of American Senator Marco Rubio, who has called for the Chinese government and Communist Party to be held responsible for gross violations of human rights and possible crimes against humanity in relation to the camps. He would like to see a similarly strong stand taken in Australia.

"The US wants more Western allies publicly taking a hard position on this issue like it does. I'm trying to help governments understand the human aspect of this crisis, the psychological torture for relatives unable to speak to their families. This is creating crippling anxiety among Uighur communities."

Turkel's friend has returned to the restaurant and she joins us. He orders a long black and I ask for a peppermint tea as the waiter clears my empty plate and his half-eaten fish and chips.

They are discussing how people who are still in Xinjiang talk in code to evade government scrutiny. Detention in one of the scores of camps that have sprung up across the province this year will be explained as a "stay in hospital".

We have been talking for more than three hours. Turkel's friend – he asks me not to publish her name – wipes away tears as she says her sister is still in Xinjiang and she hasn't been able to reach her. After bringing it up with her local MP, she says she received a letter from Prime Minister Scott Morrison assuring her the government was aware of the issue and would continue to monitor and follow it up.

While this is encouraging, Turkel says the government has not applied enough pressure. Local Uighurs are reticent to lobby aggressively because they are too nervous about causing trouble, given Australia's heated debate on immigration, and generally wary of bureaucrats following their experience in China.

As we wrap up, he has one final message: "This is not the time to take baby steps. You are dealing with a very aggressive, reckless and relentless government. The Australian government has to be bold. I don't think it has done enough to protect its own citizens."

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