She was a gifted agricultural scientist educated at prestigious universities in Shanghai and Tokyo. She said she wanted to help farmers in poor areas, like her hometown in Xinjiang, in western China. But because of her uncle’s activism for China’s oppressed Muslim Uyghurs, her family and friends said, the Chinese state made her a security target.
At first they took away her father. Then they pressed her to return home from Japan. Last year, at age 30, Mihriay Erkin, the scientist, died in Xinjiang, under mysterious circumstances.
The government confirmed Ms. Erkin’s death but attributed it to an illness. Her uncle, Abduweli Ayup, the activist, believes she died in state custody.
Mr. Ayup says his niece was only the latest in his family to come under pressure from the authorities. His two siblings had already been detained and imprisoned. All three were targeted in retaliation for his efforts to expose the plight of the Uyghurs, he said.
called a genocide, prompting foreign governments to impose sanctions.
Now the Chinese authorities are pushing back against overseas Uyghurs by targeting their relatives.
The Communist Party has long treated the relatives of dissidents as guilty by association and used them to pressure and punish outspoken family members. With the courts under the control of the authorities, there is little recourse to challenge such prosecutions. Liu Xia, the wife of Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, spent nearly eight years under house arrest after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Her younger brother, Liu Hui, served two years in prison for a fraud conviction she called retaliation.
But with the Uyghurs, the authorities seem to be applying this tactic with unusual, and increasing severity, placing some Uyghur activists’ relatives in prison for decades, or longer.
Dolkun Isa, the German-based president of the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur rights group, said he believes his older brother is in detention. He learned in late May that his younger brother, Hushtar, had been sentenced to life in prison. “It was connected to my activism, surely,” Mr. Isa said.
Radio Free Asia, a United States-funded broadcaster, says that more than 50 relatives of journalists on staff have been detained in Xinjiang, with some held in detention camps and others sentenced to prison. The journalists all work for the broadcaster’s Uyghur language service, which has in the past several years stood out for its reporting on the crackdown, exposing the existence of camps and publishing the first accounts of deaths and forced sterilizations.
The sister of Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur American activist, was sentenced in December to 20 years in prison for terrorism. The sister, Gulshan Abbas, and her aunt had been detained in 2018, days after Rushan Abbas spoke at an event in Washington denouncing the crackdown and widespread detention in Xinjiang.