In separate statements, all three denied the allegations and called on Chinese authorities to allow their families to reunite.
Beijing strongly rejects any claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and insists that its actions are justified to combat religious extremism and prevent terrorism.
Mamutjan Abdurehim, who lives in Australia, said he has been apart from his wife and two children for five years, after she became trapped in Xinjiang following a routine trip home to Kashgar to renew her travel documents.
The children now live separately with their grandparents in Xinjiang. Mamutjan thought his wife had been sent to a detention center.
From their home in Italy, Ablikim Mamtinin and his wife Mihriban Kader said they had to flee China in 2016, afraid that Mihriban would face forced abortion and sterilization after she became pregnant with their sixth child.
The couple left their four eldest children behind, as they were told it would be too risky to try to apply for visas for the entire family. Once in Italy, they were able to obtain Italian visas for the children, now aged between 12 and 17, but the siblings were stopped by authorities in Shanghai in June 2020 when they tried to pick the documents up at the consulate.
All four children were then put into a state-owned orphanage in their hometown of Payzawat, where the Chinese government says they’re “leading a normal life and attending local schools.”
In a trip to Xinjiang in March, CNN tracked down both sets of children. Mamutjan’s 10-year-old daughter Muhlise broke down in tears when asked about her parents. “I don’t have mom with me right now, I don’t have my dad either. I just want to be reunited with them,” she said.
CNN also spoke to the second-oldest child of Ablikim and Mihriban, Yehya, in a video call. He said he wanted to be reunited with his parents and, during the call, could be seen being coached by a voice off camera.
CNN asked the Chinese government for a response to the families’ claims on March 15, ahead of the article’s publication, but received no answer. CNN sent the government detailed follow-up questions on March 22, ahead of the story’s broadcast, but again received no response.
But in a one-page statement sent to CNN on April 2, the Chinese government accused all three parents living outside China of having “extremist religious” beliefs and abandoning their children by refusing to return to Xinjiang. Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities often say they fear immediate detention upon their return.
The Chinese government said that Mamutjan’s wife Muherrem, the only one of the four parents currently inside China, had been sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting ethnic hatred,” alleging that she was influenced by her husband’s “extremist religious” views.
Authorities did not provide any evidence for their claims, or any additional details of Muherrem’s conviction. Both sets of parents vehemently deny the accusations by Chinese authorities.
“We (would) never abandon our children, but the Chinese government did not let them come to us,” said Mihriban and Ablikim in a statement.
‘Bring our children back to us’
Uyghurs who live overseas take great risks to speak out on allegations of human rights abuses by the Chinese government in their homeland.
After CNN spoke to 10-year-old Muhlise, Chinese state broadcaster CGTN aired an interview with the young girl where she said she and her younger brother were happy living with their grandparents.
Mamutjan said the Chinese government’s claims that he was a terrorist were “laughable,” and he urged Beijing to free his wife.
Following CNN’s broadcast of the story, a video of Mihriban and Ablikim’s eldest child Zumeryem, 17, appeared on Twitter in which she said her parents had “abandoned” her and her siblings.
In an edited clip, Zumeryem said she didn’t want to leave Xinjiang. “I like everything and everyone here … I live very well here, and my life is really colorful and happy every day,” she said.
CNN later learned that the children were repeatedly interrogated after CNN’s attempt to visit them. In particular, the children were reprimanded for taking a photo showing themselves with a sign in Chinese that said “Mom, dad, we miss you,” which appeared in CNN’s story.
In its statement to CNN, the Chinese government said that Mihriban and Ablikim were “key members of a violent terrorist group,” without providing any evidence, and that they had brainwashed and trained other members of their organization.
Mihriban and Ablikim said, if they had any extremist religious views, Italy wouldn’t have granted them asylum.
“We refuse the Chinese government’s baseless accusations and we demand them to bring our children back to us! That is the only request we have!” they said in a statement.
During a session of the foreign affairs committee in the Italian parliament on April 8, Italy’s Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Manlio Di Stefano said the four children have valid visas and the country’s embassy in Beijing is “ready to receive (them).”
Di Stefano said the Italian government was trying to resolve the “delicate” issue and reunite the family. “The case… deserves maximum attention,” he said.