- Associated Press - Thursday, June 24, 2010

BEIJING

Police came looking for Vali days after bloody ethnic riots broke out in the far west last year, saying they had video footage of him among fleeing protesters and later shouting at an officer.

The 22-year-old man was not home, and his father called to tell him to stay away. Vali hid for weeks before escaping to the Netherlands to join an estimated 150 other Uighurs - a Muslim minority group from China’s Xinjiang region - seeking refugee status.

“Once I got off the plane, I told the police that I need political asylum,” Vali said in a phone interview. “I told them everything that I had been through and said I can no longer live in China. If I have to go back, I am 100 percent sure that I will be dead.”

Nearly a year after the worst riots in China’s far west in more than a decade, his story and that of another asylum seeker interviewed by the Associated Press are among the few accounts to emerge of how some Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) got out amid a government crackdown.

At least 300 Uighurs are thought to have fled China since the July unrest, according to the World Uyghur Congress. Some slipped illegally into neighboring countries in Central Asia, which regularly extradite Uighurs back to China. Others with more money, such as Vali, paid thousands of dollars to criminal gangs and smugglers for plane tickets and visas.

China says some Uighurs are terrorists or criminals who pose a threat to the region’s safety, and it has insisted that Uighur refugees be extradited back. Foreign governments weary of immigrants and wary of offending China often are unwelcoming or play down the presence of Uighurs.

Cambodia sent 20 Uighur refugees back to China in December despite international protests. Turkey, which has strong ethnic and linguistic ties to the group, has eased entry requirements, but its government is reluctant to talk about the influx of dozens of Uighurs.

The Netherlands is home to what is believed to be the largest group in Europe because many international flights pass through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

The two Uighurs in Holland told AP of the fear of being ensnared by a crackdown that has detained hundreds, often unaccounted for months later. Chinese media reports say at least 25 people, mostly Uighurs, have been tried and sentenced to death for crimes related to the riots.

The Uighurs told their stories on condition that only their last names be used, citing fears of retaliation against their families. Now they wait to see if they will be granted asylum - or sent home.

On July 5, 2009, Vali was driving home when he stopped to let about 2,000 Uighur protesters pass as they marched southward in the city of Urumqi.

Armed police officers swarming in front of him suddenly opened fire in the direction of the protesters, sending them fleeing, he says. He panicked and drove through the crowd to get out. In the midst of the commotion, he says, his car was videotaped by state security.

Vali sped to his aunt’s house, where he spent the night huddled with her family on the living room floor, listening to the sounds of gunfire and explosions. “I was terrified,” he said. “None of us slept at all that night.”

As long-simmering tensions between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese majority exploded into violence, Uighurs smashed windows, torched cars and attacked Han. Uighurs say security forces fired at them.

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