In May 2018, it was reported that Guligeina Tashimaimaiti (also referred to as Gulgine Tashmemet), a Chinese-Uyghur PhD student at the University of Technology in Malaysia (UTM), had gone missing in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region several months earlier. Sources suggest that authorities took Ms. Tashimaimaiti into custody and are holding her in a re-education camp.
In March 2017, during a family visit to China, state authorities reportedly interrogated Ms. Tashimaimaiti (then a master’s student at UTM), demanded that she provide them with a DNA sample and a copy of her passport, and forced her to sign a pledge promising to return to the country after completing her studies in Malaysia. At that time, Chinese officials in Xinjiang were engaged in sweeping actions against Uyghur students studying abroad, including demanding their return to China and taking measures against members of the students’ families if they did not comply.
Months after returning to Malaysia, amidst mounting pressures on the country’s Uyghur minority community, Ms. Tashimaimaiti and her sister, who was also studying in Malaysia, lost contact with their parents and brother in Xinjiang. On December 26, 2017, Ms. Tashimaimaiti, who was due to begin her PhD program in the coming months, returned to her home city of Ghulja to search for them, fearing they were missing. Ms. Tashimaimaiti told her sister that she would confirm her safety while in China by changing her WeChat social media profile picture every week. Ms. Tashimaimaiti reportedly changed her photo only once after the first week. Several weeks later, however, the profile picture appeared to show a prison cell. According to her sister’s friend, Ms. Tashimaimaiti had been taken into custody and as of this report is being held in a re-education camp. Ms. Tashimaimaiti’s current whereabouts are unknown, and no information about her possible release is available.
Scholars at Risk is concerned over the arbitrary detention and possible disappearance of a student as part of sweeping measures by state authorities to restrict the right to academic freedom and freedom of religion and association — rights that are expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. State authorities have a responsibility to not interfere with these rights so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.