Image by Mikhail Mamontov / Pixabay
By Alex Chen
In August 2013, a police officer stationed in Nubra, a secluded valley nestled in the northeastern Himalayan region of Ladakh, received an extraordinary message. Pramanand Jha, an officer serving in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), a paramilitary force responsible for safeguarding India’s eastern frontiers, issued a letter requesting the local police to file charges against three individuals labeled as “Chinese intruders.” These individuals had been held in ITBP custody for nearly two months prior to the communication.
According to the letter, the Indian army apprehended the three Chinese nationals near the Sultanchusku area along the India-China border on the evening of June 12, 2013. The following day, the trio, identified as Adil, Abdul Khaliq, and Salamu, were transferred into the custody of the ITBP.
In his correspondence, Jha stated that during their interrogation, it was determined that the three individuals were siblings aged between 20 and 23, hailing from Uyghuristan, China’s eastern region.
During the extensive two-month interrogation conducted by the ITBP, no substantial evidence was uncovered against the three men except for the fact that they had unlawfully crossed into Indian territory.
Upon being presented before a court in September 2013, the three siblings expressed their inability to comprehend the local languages. Subsequently, they were incarcerated in a jail located in Leh, the principal city of Ladakh, for a period of 10 months. During their confinement, they managed to acquire some knowledge of Urdu and Ladakhi languages.
Ultimately, before the court, the siblings admitted that they had crossed into India without possessing any travel documents and acknowledged being in possession of knives and maps when they were apprehended by the Indian army. Consequently, on July 22, 2014, the court pronounced them guilty on three charges of trespassing and sentenced them to 18 months of imprisonment.
The individuals in question are members of the Uighur community, and they crossed over to India from their hometown of Kargilik in Uyghuristan. Their decision to flee their place of origin was prompted by the persecution they faced at the hands of Chinese authorities. The Uighurs, predominantly a Muslim ethnic minority, have been subjected to severe human rights violations, leading to international accusations against China for its actions.
As per the United Nations, a minimum of one million Uighurs have been detained in facilities referred to as “counter-extremism centers” within Uyghuristan, a region that shares a border with Indian-administered Kashmir.
The Uighur siblings confided in their lawyer, Muhammad Shafi Lassu, revealing that their decision to escape China was influenced by the detainment of several relatives and friends in a detention center. Lassu, who has been representing their cases pro bono since their encounter during a prison visit in 2014, shared that the ITBP officials had inaccurately stated their ages and that they were actually 16, 18, and 20 years old, respectively.
“When I met them in jail, it was evident that they were naive young boys,” expressed Lassu to Al Jazeera. “During our interactions, they tried to convey their fear of being confined in a detention center, which compelled them to embark on their escape.”
The three brothers confided in Lassu that they were unaware of the rules governing international borders, and the potential consequences that could lead to their imprisonment.
“In their broken words, they pleaded with me to secure their release,” recalled Lassu. “Even the jail superintendent, at that time, remarked that they behaved like children—playing, occasionally quarreling, and then returning to normalcy.”
However, what initially appeared to be a few months of imprisonment turned into a decade-long ordeal for the Uighur siblings, as they were charged under the strict Public Safety Act (PSA) by Indian authorities in March 2015.
In the most recent PSA order issued on December 24, 2022, it was decreed that the detainees should be deported to their country of origin.
The Public Safety Act (PSA) has sparked controversy as it allows for the detention of individuals for up to six months without a trial. In a repetitive cycle, whenever the detention term of the Uighur siblings expired, new detention orders were issued under the same law.
Despite multiple requests for comment, senior police and administrative officials in Kashmir did not respond to Al Jazeera’s inquiries regarding the prolonged detention of the Uighur siblings and the intended deportation plans.
“It has been almost a decade now, and they have been continuously shifted from one prison to another,” lamented Lassu. “These individuals are victims of persecution, caught in this situation due to extraordinary circumstances. They cannot be indefinitely incarcerated like this; this goes against the principles of law and justice.”
Throughout all these years, Lassu has been the sole point of contact for the Uighur siblings beyond the confines of the prison. He diligently visits them a few times annually, providing them with clothing and delivering gifts sent by well-wishers.
Within the prison walls, the trio has managed to gain a stronger understanding of the world around them. Lassu revealed that they have become fluent in Urdu, Hindi, and have acquired some proficiency in English. They spend their time engrossed in reading books and engaging in writing activities, displaying a remarkable dedication to self-improvement.
Since March of the previous year, the Uighur siblings have been imprisoned in Kot Bhalwal jail, located in the city of Jammu. Lassu, concerned about the intense heat that characterizes the city, situated south of the Kashmir Valley, has requested the authorities to relocate them.
Lassu explained to Al Jazeera, “Their bodies are accustomed to colder climates. During summers, their condition deteriorates to the point where they fear the heat may result in their demise.”
The Kashmir region has a rich historical legacy, having been part of the renowned Silk Route. This region maintained close connections with Central Asia through vibrant trade and cultural exchanges. Traders from present-day Uyghuristan frequently traversed the challenging mountain passes of the Himalayan territory, establishing deep ties with the region.
At present, there are approximately 30 Uighur families residing in the area, with Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley being the primary settlements for the community.
Lassu has made an impassioned appeal to the Indian government, urging them to allow the Uighur siblings to reside in India, a nation that has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees, including Tibetan, Afghan, and Rohingya communities totaling nearly 100,000 individuals.
“I have reached out to the government at various levels, imploring them to show compassion towards these individuals,” expressed Lassu. “I have even written multiple letters to the Prime Minister, but regrettably, there has been no response.”
Highlighting the alleged atrocities committed by China against the Uighurs in Uyghuristan, the siblings have also submitted a petition to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, requesting protection from deportation and the granting of temporary asylum until they secure permanent refuge in another country. As of now, the ministry has not responded to their appeal.
Lassu expressed grave concerns about the Uighur siblings being sent back to China, fearing that it would be tantamount to a death sentence for them. He firmly believed that if returned, they would face fatal consequences at the hands of the Chinese authorities. “Sending them back to China means giving them a death sentence. They will be shot dead by the authorities there,” he emphasized.
The recent announcement by Canada to offer permanent asylum to 10,000 Uighurs has instilled hope in the siblings. Although India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which the UN adopted, New Delhi does not recognize the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) within its territory, and thus handles refugee matters independently.
Al Jazeera approached UNHCR officials in New Delhi, who stated that their involvement could commence only after the Uighur siblings are released from jail. Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, underlined that Indian authorities should be aware of the UN’s findings, which conclude that the Chinese government’s actions against the Uighurs may amount to crimes against humanity. She further urged India to provide protection to the Uighurs instead of treating them as criminals, emphasizing that any forced return would put them at grave risk.
In Leh, Lassu expressed deep apprehension for the future of the Uighur siblings. He shared that they were enduring severe mental health challenges and decried their situation as not only illegal but also profoundly inhumane. He questioned the basis for incarcerating these young men for a decade simply because they sought refuge from persecution.