Human rights and press freedom watchdogs have denounced China’s detention of the family members of a US news organisation’s journalists covering the restive Xinjiang region.

Security services in China detained several close relatives of four Washington-based reporters working for US-funded news outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.

RFA said the detentions appear to be an attempt to intimidate and punish the reporters for their coverage of the western Xinjiang region, where the majority Muslim Uighur population has seen increasing restrictions on their religion.

china xinjiang security
This picture taken on June 26, 2017 shows police patrolling as Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after the morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. File photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP.

More than two dozen relatives of journalists Gulchehra Hoja, Shohret Hoshur, Mamatjan Juma, and Kurban Niyaz have been detained or disappeared, according to RFA. The reporters are all American citizens with the exception of Niyaz, who holds a green card.

The reporters work for RFA’s Uighur service, one of the few outlets covering the crackdown in the region, which has seen tens of thousands of ethnic minorities in the province sent to “political education centres,” according to Human Rights Watch.

“We’re very concerned about the well-being and safety of our journalists’ family members, especially those in need of medical treatment,” said Rohit Mahajan, director of public affairs at RFA in Washington.

“We’re also particularly concerned about the use of detentions as a tactic by Chinese authorities to silence and intimidate independent media, as well as to inhibit RFA’s mission of bringing free press to closed societies.”

XinJiang, China
XinJiang, China. Photo: Wikicommons.

“Punishing family members of journalists beyond the reach of the Chinese government is a cruel, if not barbaric, tactic,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler.

“The Chinese government should immediately account for these people’s health, whereabouts, and legal status and set them free.”

RFA reported on Thursday that a fifth Uighur reporter Eset Sulaiman came forward to report that his elder brother, mother-in-law and father-in-law had been sent to re-education camps.

“Because of my job at RFA and my wife’s position on the board of the Uyghur American Association, Chinese authorities have retaliated against and threatened us by detaining three relatives in the Uyghur Region,” Sulaiman told RFA.

Veteran journalist Gulchehra Hoja said in a separate statement posted online last week that she had lost contact with her parents, and her 43-year-old brother was taken away by police in October. She said she was told by a relative that around 20 of her extended family members had been arrested, but was unable to reach her relatives in China to confirm the news.

“I am extremely worried about all of them, but especially my parents who are very old and sick. My father is paralyzed on one side and needs constant care. My mother has recently had surgery on her feet and is very weak,” Hoja wrote.

Amnesty International called on the authorities to “release all Gulchehra Hoja’s relatives and drop any charges against them unless there is sufficient credible and admissible evidence that they have committed an internationally recognized offence and are granted a fair trial in line with international standards.”

It also urged authorities to ensure that her parents can receive appropriate medical care, and ensure that those in the Xinjiang region can communicate with others without interference unless it is in line with international human rights law.

Maya Wang, senior China researcher for New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch, told HKFP: “It is distressing to hear that people are being detained and punished simply because their family members are journalists. Unfortunately in Xinjiang, where there is heightening repression, this is not surprising as people are often punished for peaceful activities or for being related to people who do so.”

The group reported on Tuesday that Xinjiang authorities are collecting large amounts of data on individuals and using it to identify targets deemed threatening.

Chinese authorities say that heavy security in the region is needed to prevent the spread of Islamist extremism and separatism, but rights groups accuse the government of repressing the culture and rights of Uighur Muslims.

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