China’s crackdown on Uyghurs reaches the ArcticMarch 15, 2022
During his final month in Xinjiang, before he set off for Europe, Memettursun Omer’s Chinese handlers threatened him.
They told him how they “dealt” with people who went to the west on intelligence missions and then severed contact with the authorities.
“Wherever you go, we can always take you back. You have no other way except to work for us,” they said. When they dropped him off at the airport, they said, “Little brother, if you ever start to forget what we told you, just look at the moon. Wherever you can see the moon, we can find you.”
It was early 2018. The Chinese agents sent Omer to Dubai, with the hope that he would continue on to Europe to spy on the Uyghur diaspora.
He had instructions to infiltrate Uyghur groups and send back information about activists working to draw attention to the human rights crisis in northwest China.
Omer said the Chinese agents had spent months grooming, threatening and brainwashing him, and in turn, Omer persuaded his handlers that they’d produced a loyal Chinese citizen, who would be able to do the state’s bidding.
Omer, 31, is one of very few Uyghurs to escape Xinjiang in recent years. He’s fled almost as far as it is possible to go: to Kirkenes, a remote Arctic town at the northernmost tip of Norway, just a few miles away from the Russian border. He arrived in January.
“Close to 100%” of Uyghurs living in Norway face surveillance, intimidation and censorship from the Chinese state, according to Uyghur activists in Norway.
They describe a collective sense of unease among Norwegian Uyghurs — a feeling of constantly being watched.
“Uyghurs here often say we would like to live free from psychological pressure, just like the Europeans do,” said Bahtiyar Omer, director of a Norwegian Uyghur justice group in Oslo (Bahtiyar Omer and Memettursun Omer are not related). “But it’s really difficult, and we never feel secure.”
Last year, his mother in Xinjiang told him that police had been visiting her regularly. She warned him to be careful in Norway. “She told me, ‘The police know everything. They even know what’s happening inside your house.’”
He described how police will call Uyghur Norwegians via WhatsApp from inside their relatives’ homes in Xinjiang, and begin pressuring them to hand over information and stop their activism. The calls trigger tremendous anxiety for Uyghurs in Norway, who fear their families will be taken hostage if they don’t respond.
“This is just the way the Chinese government tests out different methods and sees who can easily be controlled,” Omer said.
The aim is to silence the Uyghurs in Norway.
Merdan left his homeland in 2010 after being brutally tortured in Chinese prisons.
He was living in an asylum camp in southern Norway when he got a phone call from a Chinese official who told him to keep silent about what he witnessed in Xinjiang’s prisons.
“He said if I told anybody what I experienced it would be dangerous for my family in East Turkestan,” he said.
During his early years in Norway, Merdan lived in fear of the officer’s words.
But in 2018, as the crisis in Xinjiang deepened, he decided he could no longer remain silent — even if it meant his family would be harmed.
In 2019, he got a video call. His father was sobbing while filming his mother, whose knees were broken and bandaged.
“If you don’t stop what you’re doing, maybe we will come to further harm,” Merdan’s father said. “Look at your mother’s situation — it’s all because of you.” Merdan believes that his father meant the Chinese authorities would punish his mother if he carried on with his activism.
In 2019 and 2020, his phone rang twice more. A man’s voice introduced himself as an officer with China’s security services. He asked, “Don’t you care about your parents? Don’t you care about your children?” The officer listed the names of Merdan’s children and their Oslo schools.
“They threatened me, suggesting ‘maybe I would get into a car accident’ or that ‘thieves might come into my house while I was on night shift,’” he said.
The agent told Merdan that he knew about his loans from Norwegian banks, and proceeded to list the amounts.
He offered to send Merdan money, indicating that in return, Merdan would spy on other Uyghurs, and stop his activism. Merdan refused. Instead, he installed multiple surveillance cameras around his house in Oslo.
He managed to convince the agents that his father was a prominent activist in Germany, with influence within the World Uyghur Congress, a leading Uyghur human rights organization.
The Xinjiang agents hatched a plan that he would infiltrate the group and send intelligence back to his handlers.
“They wanted me to go to Germany, and get in with their group, collect phone numbers and addresses, find out which flights they were taking, which restaurants they ate at,” he said. He was instructed to pass back information via regular WeChat video calls.
Over and over again, Omer said he was threatened about what would happen if he dropped his handlers.
“You need to remember, your older brothers are still here in Xinjiang,” the agent told him. “If you just disappear, we can make them suffer.” They forced him to sign a deposition admitting he was a terrorist. “Wherever you go, we can use this to show you’re a criminal, and bring you back to China.”