By Laignee Barron
March 1, 2018

China has detained the relatives of four U.S.-based journalists in an apparent retaliatory crackdown that marks the latest in hostilities against members of the press who cover the restive Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, the Washington Post reports.

Four ethnic Uighur journalists with Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C. have reported their relatives disappeared or detained. Shohret Hoshur, Gulchehra Hoja, Mamatjan Juma, and Kurban Niyaz believe their family members, including elderly parents, are being punished because of their work at the U.S. government-funded news service, which offers among the only independent sources of information on the tightly repressed Xinjiang province.

Three of the four journalists are U.S. citizens, while the third is a green card holder, according to the Post. Hoja, who has worked for RFA for 17 years, said she’s been told that around 20 of her family members have been in and out of detention because of her reporting. In a statement posted last week, Hoja said her brother, Kaisar Keyum, was taken into police custody in October. She lost contact with her elderly and sick parents in February. “My father is paralyzed on one side and needs a constant care. My mother has recently had a surgery on her feet and is very weak,” she wrote.”They have not committed any crime.”

Hoshur’s three brothers are in prison, as is at least one of Juma’s brothers, while the other is missing, according to the Post and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Niyaz’s brother was reportedly jailed on a charge of “holding ethnic hatred” in May 2017, according to the Post.

CPJ said in a statement that it was alarmed that at least nine relatives of the RFA journalists remain in detention or are missing.

“Punishing family members of journalists beyond the reach of the Chinese government is a cruel, if not barbaric, tactic,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler. “The Chinese government should immediately account for these people’s health, whereabouts, and legal status and set them free.”

China regards the heavily repressed northwest region as a hotbed of separatists and has detained thousands of ethnic Uighurs in an extra-judicial network of political re-education centers, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found. According to a HRW report released Tuesday, authorities there have rolled out a draconian policing program called the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” that combines facial-recognition surveillance and a minutely detailed tracking system to predict a citizen’s political risk.

Read more: China Is Using Big Data to Repress its Muslim Uighur Population, a Rights Group Says

Since 2016, the Minority Report-esque system has aggregated data about the 10 million Uighurs — down to the number of books in their possession — and flagged anyone it deems a potential security threat, HRW said.

“Arbitrary mass surveillance and detention are Orwellian political tools; China should abandon use of them and release all those held in political education centers immediately,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author. She added that officials appear to be planning on deploying similar, cloud-based policing system in other parts of the country.

In a statement to the Post, the U.S. State Department called on China to cease policies that restrict the right to freedom of religion, and urged the release of “all prisoners of conscience.”

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