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(AUSTRALIA) JUST IN: Chinese authorities have blacklisted Australian Uyghur community leaders and activists as “suspected terrorists” for monitoring and harassment in a trove of police records obtained by the ABC #AceNewsDesk report

#AceNewsReport – Apr.16: The leaked blacklist contains the records of 10,000 “suspected terrorists”, including children and more than 7,600 ethnic minority Uyghurs, who face a campaign of repression and detention which Beijing claims is aimed at stamping out Muslim extremism:

Uyghurs living in Australia turn up on hacked Chinese police blacklist: ‘The Australian citizens, who have lived in Australia for between 7 and 20 years, are among thousands of Uyghurs in China and abroad who are singled out in an official Chinese blacklist for surveillance and interrogation’

updated Yesterday at 10:52pm

Two Uyghur-Australians with their data overlayed on image.
Nurgul Sawut’s (left) and Maimaitiaji Kasimu’s details have been discovered on a terrorist blacklist in leaked Chinese police records.(ABC News: Simon Beardwell / Daniel Fermer / Clare Blumer)

The files are among more than 1 million police and surveillance records from Shanghai contained in a database named “uyghur terrorist” that was hacked late last year, as revealed by the ABC earlier this month.

An ABC investigation has now identified at least three Australian-based ethnic minority Uyghurs blacklisted in the database as “suspected terrorists” — evidence of a far-reaching campaign to monitor and stamp out foreign influence and dissent.

They include two Australian citizens — prominent Canberra-based community leader Nurgul Sawut and Melbourne Uyghur elder Maimaitiaji Kasimu — who both appeared in an explosive ABC Four Corners program in 2019 about human rights abuses in the province of Xinjiang.

The third Australian Uyghur, whose identity the ABC is withholding for his family’s safety, is a permanent resident whose mother was threatened with detention in Xinjiang months after he attended a major protest in Canberra.

Each of the three have family members or relatives who have been detained in a network of “re-education” camps in the province.

“I take being on this list as a badge of honour,” said Ms Sawut, a director of the US-based Campaign for Uyghurs organisation, who has spent years gathering data on the detention of Australian residents and their families.

“But some of the family members [of blacklisted Uyghurs] took it hard. They interpret it as they’re still being watched, even though they live in Australia.

“When I saw my name on the Chinese terrorist list, I was shocked but not surprised because I have been outspoken about the Uyghur cause and the crisis in our region since 2017.”

Old passport.
Nurgul Sawut was born in Xinjiang in China and now lives in Canberra.(Supplied)

Ms Sawut says dozens of her family members in Xinjiang have been locked up in retaliation against her activism, and she has received attacks and warnings online which she believes were sent by Chinese authorities.

Hayrullah Maimaitiaji, whose blacklisted father Maimaitiaji Kasimu is revered as a devoutly religious leader in Melbourne’s Uyghur community, told the ABC he feared the discovery would further discourage others from speaking out.

“We are telling the truth, and now the Chinese government put my father with more than 7,000 people [Uyghurs] on that list,” said Mr Maimaitiaji, who was detained in Xinjiang in 2017 and is from a prominent Muslim family repeatedly targeted by authorities in China.

“If we are suddenly on the list, our relatives in China or us ourselves are in a very hard position.

“You [already] can’t go to China anymore or we can’t leave China anymore. It’s going to affect our safety as well.”

‘In China, terrorism is a very broad and vague concept’

The hack follows a series of data leaks that provide evidence of a Chinese government strategy to target Uyghur dissidents, diaspora and practicing Muslims as terrorists and harass their families in China.

The blacklist also exposes the targeting of children, with more than 400 minors identified as “suspected terrorists”, more than 100of them aged under 10.

An older man holds a young baby.
Maimaitiaji Kasimu’s name has been found in a hacked Chinese blacklist of “suspected terrorists”.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

The files reveal children as young as five were “met and examined” by security officials.

The revelations come amid rising international pressure on China, with the United States, Canada, European Union and Britain last month launching coordinated sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang which the US and Canada describe as genocide.

“In China, terrorism is a very broad and vague concept that often encompasses people who are politically opposed to the authorities or ethnic groups such as Uyghurs, who by definition are considered essentially terrorists,” said Human Rights Watch’s senior China researcher Maya Wang, who has analysed similar Chinese databases.‘Arrest by algorithm’The China Cables leak of highly classified documents reveals the scale of Beijing’s repressive control over Xinjiang, where more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups are detained.Read more

“Chinese policing encompasses very much political policing — catching political activists and dissidents.

“I suspect that’s why these Australians are on the list, because they are both Uyghurs and activists.”

The Uyghurs on the blacklist are likely to be monitored by Beijing in Australia and their families in China face harassment, according to Darren Byler, a University of Colorado researcher studying the surveillance of Uyghurs.

“This list is very significant because it’s showing us that the state thinks it’s carrying out a counter-terrorism operation, but the way that it’s doing that is by assessing entire populations of people,” he said.

“If a Uyghur living in the diaspora is on a list like this, it likely means their social media is being watched, that activities they conduct in public could be observed, that their social network and people that connect with them could potentially be implicated as well.

“Beyond that, it’s really a warning to them probably not to come back to China because upon arrival, they could expect to be detained. Most Uyghurs already see that as the likely scenario upon return.”

Uyghurs in Australia have reported receiving threats from Chinese authorities and the most recent US Ambassador to Australia, James Culvahouse, accused Beijing of monitoring and intimidating them, including with the use of fake Chinese police cars.

Database could be part of China’s mass surveillance system

Analysts believe the blacklist is a small part of China’s national watchlists, used in automated mass surveillance systems in development across the country to track Uyghurs and other persons of interest.

The “uyghur terrorist” database in which it was discovered was hacked on a Chinese Alibaba cloud server and contained files of Shanghai’s powerful police force, the Public Security Bureau (PSB), and the national Ministry of Public Security.

It was provided to Canberra-based cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 and passed on to the ABC and Five Eyes security agencies, offering a rare and detailed window into Chinese policing and surveillance.

The database contained watchlists of tens of thousands of persons of interest, files of police informants, facial and vehicle recognition photographs, and the flagged immigration records of thousands of foreigners.

The ABC revealed this month Australian security officials were investigating why it contained the flagged immigration records of 161 Australian citizens, including a former intelligence chief and business leaders.

The source of the terrorist blacklist is listed as the “Technology Division”, the name of a Shanghai PSB unit responsible for building its databases and “image, wireless and wired communication systems”. 

A smiling man wearing glasses.
Dr Darren Byler is a University of Colorado researcher studying the surveillance of the Uyghur people.(Supplied)

“The Technology Division is being tasked with deciding who should be placed on watchlists and then prompting other police officers to do investigations into them,” said Dr Byler, who has found similarities in the blacklist with leaked surveillance data from Xinjiang.

“It’s really in charge of turning normal material life into a data-centric interface that allows the state to assess people and assess their movements through time and space.

“Some of this is through travel records and banking records and things like that. In other cases, they’re using forms of facial recognition software that might be in camera systems or at checkpoints as people move through cities.”

Dr Byler believes this blacklist is aimed at monitoring people of interest who have moved through Shanghai, “and grading them in terms of the level of threat that they pose to the state”.

Suspects ‘touched the net’ in Shanghai

A woman in blue holding a microphone in front of a crowd with a flag.
Nurgul Sawut has spoken out at protests in Australia about the oppression of Uyghur people in China.(Supplied)

The Technology Division blacklist categorises the “suspected terrorists” according to ethnicity and levels of monitoring, such as “line of sight”.

Maimaitiaji Kasimu is flagged among 2,000 suspects who have “touched the net in Shanghai” — a term analysts believe may refer to accessing the internet or being captured by a mass surveillance system known as Skynet. He last visited the city in 2010.

The majority of the “suspected terrorists” are listed as having been “met and examined” by security officials, including Ms Sawut, who told the ABC she was interrogated at China’s Guangzhou airport in 2016.

She said a security official questioned her after a visit home for her father’s funeral, asking her about her movements in China, her work in Australia, and the personal details of her family in both countries.

A woman wearing glasses looks over her shoulder.
Nurgul Sawut’s name has been found on a Chinese public security blacklist.(ABC News: Simon Beardsell)

A third Australian-based Uyghur blacklisted as a “suspected terrorist” told the ABC he had often travelled to Shanghai for business.

He said that after he moved to Australia and attended a major protest in Canberra, his mother was visited and threatened by security officials in Xinjiang.

“They told her that because your children are overseas, you are on a blacklist,” he said.

“She was told, ‘You’ll be exempted from the blacklist if you go to the re-education centre,’ but she didn’t because of her age and because she is fragile with medical conditions.

“I haven’t spoken to her in more than a year. We are devastated, living in trauma day and night thinking about our families.”

He said officials warned his family not to contact him again and asked them to provide his personal information, including evidence that he lived in Australia.

The ABC also spoke with a Uyghur businessman in Turkey on the Shanghai blacklist who said he was detained after a visit to the city in 2017.

‘I don’t understand why I’m on this list’

A Uyghur family eats a meal at a white dinner table.
Maimaitiaji Kasimu’s family at their home in Melbourne.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

For Maimaitiaji Kasimu, the blacklist is the latest in a brutal and personal campaign against his family, who are regarded as religious elite in his home city of Artush, in southern Xinjiang province.

He counts 17 of his family members and relatives who have been detained in China’s so-called Vocational Education and Training Centres, including a brother who died in 2018 from head injuries sustained there.

A second brother, who led the construction of a major mosque in Artush, is serving a 17-year jail sentence and his wife has also been imprisoned.

His son Hayrullah fled to Australia after being detained four years ago. He has not heard from his wife and stepson, who are blocked from leaving Xinjiang.

“If the Chinese government accuses a person like me of being a terrorist, I don’t know what ‘terrorist’ means,” said Mr Kasimu, who moved to Australia in 2013 and last visited China in 2016.

“I don’t understand why I’m on this list because I’m 67 years old and no-one [in China] ever talked to me about anything I’ve done wrong.”

A young man at a table laden with food.
Hayrullah Maimaitiaji fled China four years ago.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

Ms Sawut has been a thorn in Beijing’s side and has been lobbying the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to help evacuate the families of Australian Uyghurs who are blocked from leaving Xinjiang.

She fears for her mother and sisters, who have previously been detained and who she has also not heard from in four years.

Ms Sawut is now calling on the Australian government to find a way to take action over the blacklist, fearing Beijing will share it with other countries that could restrict her movement.

“I’m an Australian citizen and at the same time Uyghur Australian, and I have every right to be protected,” she said.

“DFAT and especially our Foreign Minister need to step up, follow up this list with their Chinese counterparts, and remove our names if possible.

“They need to show their effort to protect Uyghur Australian citizens, especially in our own homeland, if they can’t do outside.

“Protecting myself on Australian soil is an issue right now.”

The Chinese Embassy in Australia did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment.

#AceNewsDesk report …………Published: Apr.16: 2021:

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