An outspoken former detainee in China’s internment camps for Muslims said his application for a visa to visit the United States was rejected – despite an invitation to speak to the US Congress about his ordeal.
Omir Bekali was one of the first people to speak out publicly about his experience in a camp in China’s Xinjiang region, where an estimated one million Muslims, mostly from the Uighur and Kazakh ethnicities, are being detained.
A Kazakh national, Bekali was asked to travel to Washington, DC, in September by the chairs of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China. He said his application was rejected by the US consulate in Istanbul on October 2 after he was questioned about his employment status.
“I’ve received so many threats after speaking out. I feel like they should be able to do at least this simple request,” Bekali said by phone from Turkey.
Commission spokesman Scott Flipse confirmed the invitation and said the co-chairs had written to Bekali offering to assist him in seeking a visa.
The US Department of State declined to comment on Bekali’s case, saying American immigration law prohibits it from discussing individual visa applications.
“We continue to urge China to reverse its counterproductive policies that conflate terrorism with peaceful religious and political expression, and to release all those arbitrarily detained in these camps,” the department said in a statement.
Bekali wants to take his family to Europe or the US, where he feels they will be safe from China’s reach. Last month, his wife and child were held at a Turkish airport for more than three days and were nearly put on a flight back to Kazakhstan.
He fled Almaty earlier after he was interrogated by Kazakh police, who he said showed up at his home shortly after he spoke out about the “re-education” camps. Kazakh authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
Bekali said even though he’s been reunited with his family in Turkey, he won’t feel safe until they move to a country that can stand up to China’s influence, underscoring the deep anxiety that grips the diaspora Muslims who once lived in Xinjiang under an intense security crackdown.
“I’m scared China will find some way to hurt me or threaten me,” Bekali said. “Every day I have nightmares, I can’t sleep at night.”
China has come under increasing pressure from Western governments about its mass internment of Muslims. The commission, a bipartisan group of US legislators, has proposed legislation that would urge US President Donald Trump to condemn “gross violations” of human rights in Xinjiang.
Bekali is named in the proposed legislation among those who have testified to the indoctrination, humiliation, and indefinite detention of internees.
“In China, the government is engaged in the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities that is straight out of George Orwell,” outgoing US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a speech on Monday.
“It is the largest internment of civilians in the world today.”
Bekali said he’s “lost faith in other countries” taking action to help Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group that makes up about half of Xinjiang’s population of 22 million.
“China’s economic power is so strong and only getting stronger. Everyone’s scared of the pressure China can exert on them,” he said.
China on Tuesday characterised its mass internment of Muslims as a push to bring into the “modern, civilised” world a destitute people who are easily led astray.
Beijing has denied such camps are for “political education” and says they are instead vocational training centres, part of government initiatives to bolster economic growth and social mobility in the region.
Beijing, however, imposes a long list of prohibitions on religious behaviour in Xinjiang, including wearing long beards and veils.
China’s main state newspaper hit back against abuse allegations on Friday, accusing Western media of “double standards” when it comes to reporting on China’s restive northwestern region.
The China Daily said in an editorial the “false picture” of Xinjiang in the foreign media was “aimed at smearing the Chinese government”.
“A double standard is put into service to serve this end. China, critics in the West say, only imagines it faces a terrorist threat, and it is just Western countries that face the real threat of violence born of extremism,” it said.
In recent years, hundreds of people have been killed in unrest between Uighurs and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.