Day: March 8, 2020

Targets of crackdown in China fear government’s reach in US

WASHINGTON — The photo of his father was barely recognizable. The old man looked unusually pale and tired, and his customary beard was shaved off. The son who received the photo over WhatsApp was immediately suspicious.

He hadn’t heard from his family in western China for two years while he studied at a U.S. university.

His family are Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that has become the target of a massive crackdown in China. Since 2017, more than 1 million people have been confined to internment camps and many more are monitored in their own homes.

Why would he get this message now? And why would it come over WhatsApp? The messaging platform is censored for ordinary people in China, but often is used by authorities.

No words accompanied the photo, but he interpreted it as a kind of warning.

“I feel like I’m being watched even in the United States,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals from the Chinese government. “They have all of our information. They know where we live.”

Such fear of surveillance has become a fact of life for thousands of Uighurs living outside China and struggling to rebuild lives abroad, while family and friends go missing in China’s western Xinjiang region. Within China, the State Department says, many Uighurs have been subjected to torture and other abuse.

Even Uighurs who now live in the relative safety of the United States, where their situation has sparked bipartisan concern in Congress, say they still fear being monitored and worry that speaking freely may spur reprisals against family members in Xinjiang.

“I hear these stories all the time,” said Kuzzat Altay, president of the Uighur American Association whose own father renounced him in a video released by Chinese authorities on social media. “People come to me crying.”

Altay, who came to the U.S. as a refugee and has become a citizen, started a Uighur entrepreneurship network outside Washington. But most of the 25 members dropped out at the urging of family members in Xinjiang who had been visited by local authorities.

Altay said he thinks Chinese authorities worried that his entrepreneurship group would have discussed the crackdown back home.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Ferkat Jawdat is a naturalized American citizen who came to the U.S. nine years ago and works as a software engineer in Virginia. His mother was taken into the Xinjiang internment camps in 2018.

Last May, when she was briefly released, she called and told him not to speak out about Uighur issues. He later learned from relatives that she had contacted him at police insistence and was taken back into police custody the very next day.

The Chinese government is broadly suspicious of Uighurs who have spent significant time abroad, said Brian Mezger, an immigration lawyer who specializes in Uighur asylum cases.

“The Chinese government views exposure to foreign influence as basically polluting the Uighurs,” said Mezger, whose practice is based in Rockville, Maryland.

A dozen Uighurs in the U.S. interviewed by The Associated Press, most of whom did not want their names used, described various forms of intimidation.

They described calls from Chinese government officials instructing them to “check in” at Chinese consulates. Some were told their Chinese passports would not be renewed and were offered one-way travel documents back to China. Several said relatives back home were visited by local police looking for information about family members abroad.

The young man who received the photo of his father in June, two years after family members in Xinjiang warned him to cut off contact, says he doesn’t know what authorities wanted from him.

He also received a series of unsettling text messages in the Uighur language, but he responded in Chinese to ask why the sender had contacted him. The person sending the messages said that if he wanted to have a video chat with my father, he could arrange it. “He wouldn’t say what he wanted from me.”

These accounts of harassment match reports compiled by activists and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which last month documented widespread fear of surveillance and retribution among 400 Uighurs living in 22 countries.

The Uighur global diaspora is estimated to be between 1 million and 1.6 million people.

There are several thousand Uighurs in the United States, with the largest concentration living in the Washington D.C. area.

“This is happening to people’s neighbours, to fellow Americans — that’s what’s so scary,” said Francisco Bencosme, an Asia-Pacific advocacy manager for Amnesty International.

Uighurs qualify for asylum in the U.S. because today they face almost certain detention if they return to China, said Mezger, who has represented hundreds of people from Xinjiang. He said nearly all of his cases have been successful.

The wait for asylum, however, can take years and the anxiety can be grueling.

“Even if you’re free in the U.S., you can’t leave the U.S. while your asylum application is pending,” said James Millward, a professor of history who researches Xinjiang at Georgetown University. “If you have relatives in Europe or Canada, you can’t go see them. You can’t travel there for work. And you may have to wait for years.”

Xinjiang, which means “new frontier” in Chinese, was brought under control of Chinese authorities in Beijing in the 19th century. But the western desert region has longstanding cultural, religious, and linguistic ties to Central Asia and to Turkey.

Uighurs have faced numerous previous persecution and assimilation campaigns by the Chinese government.

An enhanced security state began to take shape in Xinjiang after 2009, when race riots left around 200 people dead in the capital city of Urumqi. In recent years, surveillance cameras and police checkpoints have become ubiquitous.

The government began to build internment camps in 2017 as a means of intimidation and social control. Former camp detainees have previously told the AP that after being confined in the camps, they were forced to renounce their faith and swear fealty to China’s ruling Communist Party.

Uighurs face limits on the use of their language in schools, their ability to check into hotels and restrictions on cultural practices such as wearing beards and fasting during religious holidays.

The government’s goal is to “eradicate Uighur culture,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uighur Congress.

He added that social controls have grown more stringent since the inception of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative — an overseas infrastructure funding policy — has enhanced the strategic importance of Xinjiang’s location bordering Central Asia.

China’s foreign ministry regularly bristles at international criticism of policies in Xinjiang, which it views as an internal matter. It has said that measures in Xinjiang are intended to curb religious extremism and that the detention camps are “vocational centres,” where people are held voluntarily. But it has refused to permit independent monitors to visit.

It’s not possible to confirm that the intimidating messages received by Uighurs abroad come from Chinese officials. But the Uighurs’ accounts of harassment have been consistent enough that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress back legislation that would require the FBI to help protect Uighurs in the United States.

The young man who received the photo of his father and the string of suspicious messages said he called the FBI and that two agents met with him. The agency wouldn’t comment on whether it investigated the particular case, but said in a statement, “Without discussing specifics, we take all reports of threats or intimidation seriously.”

Meanwhile, the man has continued his studies while he awaits a decision on his asylum application and worries about relatives in China. “They could punish my family, if they haven’t already sent them to the camps, because I didn’t co-operate.”

“Even if you have physical freedom, it’s very difficult to escape the reach of the Chinese government,” said Mezger, the attorney.

Ben Fox And Christina Larson, The Associated Press

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Pilgrims turn to prayer, kinship during coronavirus scare

JERUSALEM — A group of Christian pilgrims from Alabama is turning to prayer and positive thinking as they cope with an open-ended coronavirus quarantine, confined to their West Bank hotel rooms while they wait for clearance to return to the United States.

Chris Bell, the lead pastor at the 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Ala., said his 13-member group arrived last week for what was supposed to be a dream-of-a-lifetime trip to the Holy Land. But after two days of touring Jerusalem and Bethlehem, they were notified that they might have been exposed to the virus after a group of Greek tourists staying in the same hotel had tested positive. They have been instructed by local authorities to remain in their hotel indefinitely.

“We’re really sad that things turned out the way they did,” Bell said. “It’s not a great situation, but we’re trying to make the best of it.”

He said the group is made up of church staff and spouses, and for almost everyone, it was their first time in the Holy Land. He said this familiarity and shared faith, along with generosity from the hotel and the local community, has helped them get through the ordeal.

He said the group is confined to one floor of the hotel. Each morning, he said people put on gloves and masks and meet in the hallway to pray together. They also have reading materials and wi-fi, allowing them to read the news, stream movies and remain in contact with the outside world.

“We love each other. Most of us have our spouses with us as well. So all of that human interaction, even though it’s through gloves, masks and at a distance really helps us get through every day,” he said.

Bell said the hotel staff has treated his group with great hospitality, disinfecting rooms and delivering food in plastic bags. He said the local community has sent shipments of everything, from shawarma to bread and chips, and from Popeye’s Chicken to medications. His group also remains in contact with Palestinian and Israeli authorities, as well as U.S. consular officials at the American Embassy in Jerusalem.

The group has been tested for the virus and is waiting for the results, he said. In the meantime, no one is showing any symptoms of sickness. He said everyone remains hopeful that they will soon be allowed to leave and return home.

“We are people of faith. And we do not believe this is an accident,” Bell said. “We know that our God knows exactly where we are. And he has a plan for this and that he is going to sustain us, and he’s going to be faithful to us. And we just want to represent him well while we’re walking through us.”

The group’s hotel, the Angel, is located in Beit Jala, a village on the outskirts of Bethlehem, which has become the epicenter of the West Bank’s coronavirus scare. Fourteen of the 19 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the West Bank are hotel workers.

The hotel’s director, Maryana al-Arajah, who is among those infected, said that everyone diagnosed with the virus is in closed rooms and quarantined on one floor, while those at risk, such as the Americans, are on a separate floor.

She said workers who are not infected have been given gloves, masks and protective clothing while they deliver food and continue to disinfect the building. In all, 42 people are in quarantine, she said.

The coronavirus scare has generated a sense of panic throughout Bethlehem — the biblical town revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Streets have been empty since the first cases were announced last week, and the Church of the Nativity, built on the grotto where tradition says Christ was born, has been closed to the public.

Israel, meanwhile, has confirmed 25 cases of coronavirus, including a 38-year-old man who was in serious condition on Sunday. Some 20,000 people have been ordered into 14-day home quarantine protectively, while the local travel sector has taken a beating as scores of flights in and out of the country have been cancelled.

“We know there’s a lot of people hurting,” Bell said. “So we’re not just praying for ourselves. We’re praying for the hurting people of this area because we love them.”

“We’re just hoping that we are able to go home and have great memories and a great story to tell in the end, an epic story,” he said.


Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.AP

Josef Federman, The Associated Press

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AP Explains: Mexican women to march against gender violence

MEXICO CITY — Protests against gender violence in Mexico have intensified in recent years amid an increase in killings of women and girls. The killings are often accompanied by sexual assault and sometimes grisly mutilations. Women are expected to express their outrage in a march in Mexico City on Sunday, International Women’s Day. Smaller demonstrations will be held across the country. Women and girls also plan to hold protests on Monday. Mexican women are being urged to skip school, shun housework and stay home from work to show the country what it’s like to go one day without them.



Government statistics show that more than 10 females are slain on average every day in Mexico, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for girls and women. As recently as 2017 an average of seven women were killed each day in Mexico.

“The context of violence against women and against girls in Mexico is especially grave,” said Nira Cárdenas, co-ordinator of the gender unit at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico.

In addition to half the population being at high risk of violence, impunity is a major problem. Few reported crimes in Mexico result in convictions.

Participation in the annual march on Sunday is expected to be higher than during previous marches as a broader swath of society joins the families of the killed and missing who frequently take to the streets, accompanied by feminists and activists.



A series of recent, highly publicized murders in Mexico has led to more debate and calls for protests against gender violence.

The ex-wife of an influential technology entrepreneur was shot to death in November after testifying in a child custody case. A young woman was skinned and disemboweled, allegedly by her boyfriend, in February. Days later, a seven-year-old was kidnapped outside her elementary school and sexually abused — the child’s lifeless body disposed of in a plastic bag found in an empty lot.

The victims shared a history of abuse in their households, and failings by Mexican authorities.

A contingent of mothers of victims will march together Sunday in a show of sorority and tears.

“We want to give a hug not just to those who are no longer physically here with us, but also to each and all of those women who will soon become part of our family (of victims),” said Araceli Osorio, mother of Lesvy Berlín, who was strangled to death by a boyfriend on the campus of Latin America’s largest university in 2017.



Mexico has aggressive legislation for punishing violent crimes against women. The deficit comes in the application of the law.

“Mexico is the country of rights on paper,” says Ana Pecova, director of advocacy group EQUIS Justice for Women.

Since 2011, murders of Mexican women that carry signs of hatred for the gender, such as mutilation, have come with a stiffer minimum sentence than regular homicides.

Congress increased the femicide sentence once again in February, to 65 years, and passed a constitutional amendment last year that allows for preventive detention for those accused of domestic violence for a second time. The majority of women killed in Mexico are targeted by their own partners.

Authorities often lack the tools, motivation and capability to investigate crimes, leading family members of victims to pursue the cases themselves. Several mothers complain that their missing girls were initially dismissed as runaways and their killings wrongly ruled suicides.



A women’s protest in February became rowdy, following a pattern of street outrage in the past. A masked protester tried to set fire to a wooden door of the presidential palace while others drenched it with red paint.

Destruction of public property has become a mainstay of feminist protests in Mexico City since a small group trashed a bus station, police precinct and a major monument in August in disgust over the city’s bungling of an alleged rape by police of a teenager.

The vandalism drew heavy criticism. The vandals argue that women are more important than statues or broken windows, which can be repaired. A woman whose life is cut short by violence never returns, they say.

“We ask ourselves all the time: What else can we do?” said Cárdenas.



The grass roots movement for a nationwide strike by women on Monday was inspired in part by similar actions in countries such as Argentina and Chile.

“We have to say: Enough already,” said María de la Luz Estrada, co-ordinator of the National Citizen’s Observatory of Femicide. “We’re calling for the rule of law to work. They have to guarantee the integrity of the lives of every male and female.”

Major banks, media companies and law firms have joined the call for women to become “invisible” for a day. The Coparmex business group encouraged its more than 36,000 members across the country to take part, estimating the one-day work stoppage will cost the economy hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Education Ministry issued a last-minute endorsement for the initiative, cognizant that schools depend heavily on female personnel.

Participants hope the national dialogue will spur change. Households where men share the chores, they note, have lower incidences of domestic abuse. Prevention is key, but so are consequences. Authorities need more funding to investigate cases, and instruction on how to do so in a timely and empathetic manner.

Amy Guthrie, The Associated Press

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Becoming more equal

Shama Naqushbandi
Image: Liz Lemon/Flickr

As one of three daughters, I was raised in an atmosphere of equality, and branched out into my adolescent years entirely complacent with my birthright to a free and fair marketplace.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” It took me many years — growing up, joining the workforce, getting married, having children of my own — to understand how privileged I was to be grounded in a culture of equality and that this was my daily normalcy. Such privilege made me guilty of underestimating and at times even dismissing the very real gender inequities that existed for those not so fortunate around me. Ultimately, these were things I learned later in life.

Most of the girls I grew up with were and remain strong, independent and well-educated women. Today they are a diverse group scattered all over the world: some leading in the C-suite, some juggling careers, children and caregiving, some married or partnered, some single, some divorced, some stay at home. Without exception, all at one point have found their noses pressed up against the constraints of a socially constructed gender box.

It is worth reflecting on this since we often look at education as the panacea for improving women’s lot, as if women can quite literally pull themselves through society entirely independently of the cultural contexts within which they live. At times we are so preoccupied with the idea of women liberating themselves from the inhibiting forces within (we must free ourselves from accreted layers of acquired learning and be self-respecting and strong), we overlook the very real and practical impediments that restrict them from realizing their full potential. It is a tired eulogy to celebrate a woman’s success relative to a defiance of prevailing norms, without an equal amount of attention paid in deconstructing the barriers that made her success so prominent in the first place. Today, an independent woman is almost synonymous with individualism, as if authenticity for one sex is now only possible through a repudiation of society’s rules.

To be female in the modern world is to occupy a strange contradiction: on the one hand, to be free, empowered and self-reliant but on the other hand to be acutely aware that this freedom continues to exist largely in a gender binary social context that persists in subjecting men and women to different standards and expectations.

As I reflect on International Women’s Day, it is clear that despite all progress made, we still have a long way to go. While gender equality is the fifth of 17 sustainable development goals set by the UN to “achieve a better and more sustainable future for all,” the sobering reality remains that more than 130 million girls worldwide continue to be denied the basic right to education. On a global scale, women continue to suffer less access to capital, financial resources, training, equal pay and employment (in some countries earning between 60 and 75 per cent of men’s wages for the same work.) They are far less likely than men to be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic violence. According to the World Health Organization, approximately one in three women worldwide has experienced physical and/or sexual violence. Of adults and children forced into sexual exploitation, 99 per cent are female.

Despite this, something I’ve always recoiled against is the idea of gender equality as a female struggle, with men as passive bystanders or at best allies. This is in no way intended to undermine female-led campaigns like the #MeToo movement, which marked a catalytic moment of breaking silence on sexual harassment, demonstrating both scale and solidarity against a catalogue of gender aggressions all too often brushed under the carpet. However, any long-term strategy must bring men into the conversation. A gender struggle that is exclusive to women is doomed from the start and risks undermining the very essence of the level playing field that women aspire to achieve.

Having heard a male CEO confide his worries that his two young sons might not have jobs when they grow up, and observed how often gender equality is conflated with male-oppression and misandry (“we can’t even compliment a woman now”), it is clear that public conversations need to address underlying fears. Ultimately, gender equality aspires for better social cohesion that is as much in the interests of men, as it is for women.

Often we have a tendency to anesthetize the pain of gender discrimination, be it the woman working in the sugar cane fields of rural India forced to remove her uterus to avoid wage loss during menstruation, or the single mother in New York denied an opportunity for self-betterment on assumptions around her responsibilities as a primary caregiver. For the victim, it is more than academic polemics. It is the hard-hitting reality of confronting a system that is so overwhelmingly stacked up against them. The same applies with biases against men, with the feminizing of emotion from an early age shaming boys out of their natural tenderness (lads don’t cry) and conventional ideals of manliness often resulting in men not being open about their wellbeing, especially mental health. How often, after all, do we empathize with a father’s ability to juggle his professional and personal life? Pared back from its innumerable disguises, gender inequality is our inability to embrace the full humanity of one another.

Creating a world of real equality demands more than lip service. Increasingly, it calls for strong leadership, particularly in environments where there is a palpable absence (and we need only look at the misogyny flaunted by some of the most powerful leaders in our world today). Above all, it calls for humility and the ability to consider how inequalities manifest in the lives of others who may be different to us. This is no easy feat. This is about creating the sort of society that can treat a stay-at-home dad with the same respect as a CEO. A society that sees it as business as usual when a 34 year-old female prime minister is sworn into cabinet. It is a society where kindness and love can be leadership traits, and bravery is not masculinized. It is a society where men are willing to step up and recognize their role in gender equality advocacy — be it attitudes to patriarchy, androcentrism, discrimination and exclusion in the work place, unpaid care work or sexual health rights. But by the same token, it requires women to acknowledge their responsibility in raising awareness of fathers’ equally important parental rights, countering destructive ideas of manhood as well as self-objectification and being just as mindful of how traditional gender norms are reinforced to children through messaging.

It took me many years to realize that equality was never something I truly inherited. Part of that may have been social conditioning, but part was also a willful blindness to the lives of those around me and a failure to hold myself to account. Gender inequality is not something that happened long ago. It is not a tale of saviourism unfolding in a country far away. It doesn’t happen just because you didn’t work hard enough or dream big enough. It happens because, all over the world, at every level — structurally, culturally, politically and even individually — we tolerate it. For some, the truth may be deeply uncomfortable. But, as many of us well know, so too are the walls of our boxes.

Shama Naqushbandi is a writer, lawyer and executive based in Toronto. Her first novel, The White House, won best novel at the Brit Writers’ Awards.

Image: Liz Lemon/Flickr

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