Rawalpindi, Pakistan – On a cold winter evening, Mohammad Hassan Abdul Hameed, 34, walks towards his restaurant, past silk stores in the busy China Market in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
He, like many others here, belongs to the persecuted Uighur community from the Xinjiang province of China.
Abdul Hameed’s father arrived in Rawalpindi 50 years ago to work in a pilgrims’ guesthouse intended for Uighurs heading to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj.
Today, the guesthouse sits abandoned in the market, not far from Abdul Hameed’s restaurant.
According to members of the community, it was closed down at the request of China in 2006.
Uighurs have been migrating to Pakistan since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some to work as traders and others escaping communist persecution.
Today, China’s brutal crackdown on the community has made headlines around the world as up to three million Uighurs are believed to be held in so-called “re-education camps” where they are made to renounce Islam.
In Pakistan, there are around 2,000 Uighurs and for decades they have kept a low profile in the country – so much so that very few people are even aware of their presence.
The Muslim world on the whole, with a few exceptions, has taken a position of studied silence because of a desire not to upset a key global player that offers investments and other useful benefits.
Mohammad Umer Khan, Pakistan-based Uighur activist
But their presence here has not gone unnoticed by China, Pakistan’s “iron brother” and a helping hand at a time of economic crisis. According to the community, China has started putting pressure on Pakistan to silence its critics.
“They want to finish off Uighurs,” Abdul Hameed says, referring to the Chinese. “Here, we cannot do anything according to our wishes because China is after us.”
Beijing has invested $62bn in the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will connect Kashgar in Xinjiang to the southern Gwadar port in Pakistan.
China has also promised financial aid to the country, which is desperate to sort out its economic woes.
Muhammad Hassan Abdul Hameed, left, says his family members in China are being persecuted [Saiyna Bashir/Al Jazeera]
Despite Pakistan frequently highlighting the plight of Muslim minorities across the globe, when it comes to Uighurs, Islamabad does not wish to anger its powerful neighbour.
The Uighurs in Pakistan know too well what goes on in China since many have family members who still reside in Xinjiang. Most have not been able to talk to them for the past two years because they have been held in the camps.
“From our family, 300 people are inside [the camps],” Abdul Hameed says. “Even my brother is inside.”
Others at the China Market have similar stories.
Abdul Latif, a silk trader, has relatives in Xinjiang.
“There’s no news about them,” he says. “We can’t call them. If they get a phone call from here, even if they don’t pick it up, after a couple of hours the police will come and ask who called them, what their relationship to them is, how long they have known them, and only with this excuse, they will be picked up.
“If someone dies, there is no one to read the funeral prayers,” he sighs.
“It is such injustice that even injustice itself becomes ashamed,” Abdul Raheem, another trader, interjects, agitated.
Muhammad Adil Obaid from the Uighur community runs his own business in the China Market in Rawalpindi, Pakistan [Saiyna Bashir/Al Jazeera]
According to Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Center, the Uighur community in Pakistan is of some concern for China, despite being minuscule in numbers.
“China knows that the plight of Uighurs has already generated major headlines and negatively impacted its global image. So, it doesn’t want Uighurs in Pakistan, where they have more freedom to speak out, bringing more attention to an issue that Beijing wants kept quiet,” he says.
Recently, news broke of the Uighur wives of Pakistani businessmen locked away in internment camps in China. Pakistan’s inaction has infuriated the community, although it has not come as a surprise.
“Pakistan is the greatest friend [of China]. Higher than the skies, deeper than the oceans,” Raheem says.
While Pakistan often laments the plight of Rohingya, Syrian, Kashmiri, and Palestinian Muslims, you rarely hear Islamabad making statements in solidarity with Uighurs.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Center
Some members of the community say they have started facing harassment and intimidation in Pakistan for being too vocal.
One of them is Abdul Rehman, who requested his real name not be used because of the risks to himself and his family members in China.
“The Chinese government has put everyone here after each other. Me after him, him after me and him after him. We are afraid of each other. We cannot talk openly,” he says.
“The problem here is that there is pressure on the Pakistani government from China and the government of Pakistan puts pressure on us so that we wouldn’t talk about [the issues of] Uighurs in the media here,” Rehman says.
“The agencies here put pressure on us from their side. They pick us up. They have taken many to safe houses. I am one of them. I was there for 12 days last year,” he continues in a hushed voice.
“They ask us about CPEC, what our opinion is about it. What opinion should we have about it?”
Abdul Raheem, right, a silk trader, is one of around 2,000 Uighurs in Pakistan [Saiyna Bashir/Al Jazeera]
According to Kugelman, CPEC is one of the main reasons that the community has now come under increasing pressure in Pakistan.
“Beijing has ample influence over many things in Pakistan, thanks to its frequent largesse and to the trust it enjoys in Islamabad. China’s leverage has further intensified as it builds out CPEC, a major infrastructure project that’s critically important to Pakistan,” he says.
But China has also repeatedly raised alarm about what it calls “Uighur terrorists” who it believes are plotting attacks against it from the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In 2015, Pakistan said “almost all” fighters had been eliminated in army operations.
According to Kugelman, the number of Uighur fighters is modest.
“Inflating the threat posed by Uighurs gives Beijing a useful pretext to crack down on them,” he says.
Mohammad Umer Khan, founder of an organisation called Umer Uighur Trust in Rawalpindi, says the problems for him and other Uighurs in Pakistan have increased significantly in recent years.
“There is danger for every one [of us] in Pakistan now,” he says. “Whoever starts saying I am Uighur, I am Turkistani, is in danger.”
He says the problems started in 2006.
Men, who he thought were from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, would periodically pick him up and detain him for a day or two.
In 2010, Pakistani authorities closed down a school he had set up to teach the Uighur language to the community’s children, he says.
“They used violence against me and they put my name on an ECL (exit control list) so I couldn’t travel anywhere,” Khan says. His name was finally removed from the list in 2014 after he took the matter to the Supreme Court.
About a year ago, he says, he was picked up again and held for around two weeks.
Khan says he was beaten severely which left permanent scars on his left arm. He was subsequently made to sign documents where he promised to no longer protest against China’s policies.
Khan’s account could not be verified because the Interior Ministry of Pakistan did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comments.
“They say I am ruining the friendship between China and Pakistan,” he says.
But Khan says the real issue is not with the Pakistani government. “Definitely [the Chinese] have a hand in it,” he says.
The situation, say analysts, is unlikely to change for the better as long as China continues to hold sway in Pakistan.
“It’s quite striking that while Pakistan often laments the plight of Rohingya, Syrian, Kashmiri, and Palestinian Muslims, you rarely hear Islamabad making statements in solidarity with Uighurs,” Kugelman says.”To be fair to Islamabad, it’s not just Pakistan that’s so hands off.
“The Muslim world on the whole, with a few exceptions, has taken a position of studied silence because of a desire not to upset a key global player that offers investments and other useful benefits.”
The Uighurs are aware of this and are slowly starting to lose hope.
“We have become very disappointed with Muslim countries, especially Arab countries,” Khan says. “After that, we had a lot of hopes from Turkey, but so far they haven’t done anything that big. When it comes to Pakistan, we don’t even have any hopes that they would raise their voice [for us].”
Despite the threats, Khan intends to continue speaking about his community’s problems.
“I am not against Pakistan or CPEC. But injustice is being done to my nation, to my relatives. I speak for their rights,” he says defiantly.
Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case
BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Bukhari told Lebanese religious figures on Tuesday that the Kingdom “cares for Lebanon’s security, stability, institutions and co-existence between Christians and Muslims.” The Saudi embassy’s media office said: “There is no legitimacy for the discourse of strife, nor for one that goes against Lebanon’s Arab identity.” This was…
BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Bukhari told Lebanese religious figures on Tuesday that the Kingdom “cares for Lebanon’s security, stability, institutions and co-existence between Christians and Muslims.”
The Saudi embassy’s media office said: “There is no legitimacy for the discourse of strife, nor for one that goes against Lebanon’s Arab identity.”
This was the first Saudi statement since the bloody clashes in Tayouneh on Oct. 14.
At least seven people were killed in the violence in Beirut amid a protest organized by Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s blast at the city’s port.
The protestors, gathered by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, demanded the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar from the investigation.
According to the embassy’s statement, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian “expressed his appreciation for the Kingdom, led by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for never abandoning Lebanon and its people, despite the unfair stances against the Kingdom by some Lebanese parties that only represent themselves.”
Sheikh Derian added that “the Saudi-Lebanese relations have always been and will remain solid regardless of any offensive speeches because our relations are above these speeches and Saudi Arabia will always see Lebanon as an Arab brotherly country.”
The statement comes after the Intelligence Directorate summoned the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, to the Defense Ministry on Wednesday as part of the investigation into the bloodshed in Tayouneh.
The summoning was the motivation for Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi’s spontaneous visits on Tuesday to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Aoun.
Al-Rahi denounced “the summoning of Geagea only by the Intelligence Directorate to testify.”
Charles Jabbour from the Lebanese Forces party told Arab News that “Geagea will not appear at the Defense Ministry on Wednesday.
“They should start with summoning Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah. All parties should give testimonies, beginning with the party that called for the demonstration. Only when a judge dares to summon Nasrallah, will we be able to talk about a state and a judiciary in Lebanon.”
The move to summon Geagea was condemned by several political figures.
Former Premier Saad Hariri refused “to engage in an absurd conflict and the frontlines of a civil war and sectarian divisions.”
He added: “Announcing that Dr. Geagea was informed to appear before the Intelligence Directorate via a plastered notification is absurd and leads the country into further division along with using state machinery for revenge politics.”
Former Premier Fouad Siniora also denounced “the bias of the judicial authorities in the military court over the deplorable Tayouneh events and the continuing violations of the constitutions by those who were entrusted with the task of preserving and protecting it.”
Siniora rejected “the practices seeking to use the judiciary for reprisals against political opponents, and not for its main mission: To seek the truth and achieve justice.”
Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat criticized the “selectivity instead of a transparent and just investigation for a comprehensive justice.”
He said: “All those who fired shots in the Tayouneh events should be arrested, without discrimination, and this destructive and futile political dispute must be ended.”
Samy Gemayel, head of the Lebanese Kataeb Party, announced his rejection to “all the means Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have resorted to in hampering the investigation into the Beirut port blast.”
Hezbollah accused Geagea of firing the first shot on Oct. 14 at the demonstrators who penetrated the anti-Hezbollah and Christian-majority Ain Remaneh area.
Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is also a defendant in the Beirut port explosion investigation, visited Sheikh Derian on Tuesday, reiterating his demand “to either lift immunity from everyone without exception, or adopt the legal and constitutional mechanisms in force in the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.”
So far, all the politicians who have been accused of being involved in the Beirut port blast have declined to appear before Judge Bitar.
Amal Movement and Hezbollah ministers have refused to attend Cabinet sessions unless Judge Bitar is removed and the investigations into Tayouneh are halted, causing a governmental paralysis at a time when Lebanon is in desperate need of reforms to unblock the international aid that would lessen its dire economic situation.
Prime Minister Mikati hoped on Tuesday that “Cabinet meetings will resume as soon as possible to make the decisions required to activate the work of commissions and committees and do what is needed from the government.”
Mikati added that he hoped his government would supervise “the parliamentary elections with full integrity, to enable these elections to renew the political life in Lebanon.”
The joint parliamentary committees held a session on Tuesday and voted to keep the electoral law as it was, thus rejecting Aoun’s proposal to make amendments.
Aoun had objected to holding the elections on March 27 and to the proposals to change the expatriate voting formula by canceling the six seats allocated for Lebanese voters who live abroad.
Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture
LONDON: A former Iranian air force pilot exiled in Turkey has said he still feels unsafe after a failed kidnapping attempt last month. Mehrdad Abdarbashi, a former helicopter pilot who defected from the military when he was ordered to fight in Syria, had previously tried to resign from the armed forces, but Tehran rejected his…
LONDON: A former Iranian air force pilot exiled in Turkey has said he still feels unsafe after a failed kidnapping attempt last month.
Mehrdad Abdarbashi, a former helicopter pilot who defected from the military when he was ordered to fight in Syria, had previously tried to resign from the armed forces, but Tehran rejected his resignation and seized his passport.
In 2018, he said he received orders to be deployed to Syria on behalf of the Assad regime and decided it was time to flee Iran.
“It was the first time I was being deployed there, and I refused because I did not want to be involved in a proxy war going on there,” he told Al Jazeera.
He is now in hiding in eastern Turkey, and was recently targeted by two Iranian agents who tried to drug and kidnap him.
Turkish intelligence, which had been in contact with Abdarbashi, foiled the plot. The Iranian agents were charged with espionage and conspiracy to commit a crime in a Turkish court earlier this month.
But Abdarbashi said he still fears the Iranian regime will reach him despite Ankara’s protection.
“I don’t think I am safe in any city in Turkey right now. I think Iranian intelligence will come after me, and this time they won’t try to kidnap me, this time they will just kill me,” he said.
“Of course, Turkish police and intelligence are still looking after me. But I still think Iranian agents will somehow reach me.”
Iranian exiles in Turkey are often targeted by Tehran’s agents, who try to kidnap them to bring them back to the Islamic Republic.
In June 2020, Eisa Bazyar, a writer critical of the Iranian regime, was forced into a car in western Turkey and held for two days before he managed to escape.
The following November, Habib Chaab, an Iranian dissident with Swedish citizenship, was seized as he transited through an Istanbul airport.
For a period of time, it appeared that Ankara was complying with and even directly cooperating with Tehran’s attempts to kidnap foreign dissidents and bring them back to Iran.
In two cases, Ankara assisted with the capture and deportation of men sentenced to death for their role in anti-regime protests.
But last year’s war between Azerbaijan — perhaps the nation with the closest ties to Ankara — and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh appears to have prompted a cooling in relations between Turkey and Iran. Their opposing sides in the Syrian conflict has also proved a more subtle bone of contention.
As relations between the two large Middle Eastern states — which share a long border and have a centuries-old history of Persian-Turkic competition — have declined, Ankara’s cooperation with Iranian intelligence operations on Turkish soil appears to have ceased.
In February this year, Turkish police arrested an Iranian diplomat at the Istanbul consulate in connection with the assassination of spy-turned-dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in November 2019.
Kuwait Times Wednesday, October 27, 2021
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