Uyghur Australian woman breaks her silence as her husband is sentenced to 25 years in a Chinese jail in Xinjiang
- Mirzat Taher, an Australian permanent resident and Uyghur, has been detained in China
- His wife Mehray Mezensof, who lives in Melbourne, is speaking out for the first time
- A new report by Human Rights Watch says China is committing “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang
Instead, he has been in and out of detention centres and concentration camps multiple times in China’s far north-western region of Xinjiang.
Ms Mezensof has never spoken publicly before, fearing it would make an already perilous situation more dangerous for her husband Mirzat Taher.
But she has been pushed to breaking point after receiving devastating news two weeks ago that Mr Taher, an Australian permanent resident, has been sentenced to 25 years in jail for alleged “separatism”.
“It’s ridiculous, my husband would never do something like that,” the 26-year-old nurse told 7.30 in an exclusive interview.
“This isn’t something out of a movie, it is happening.”
‘Loving, caring and kind person’
Ms Mezensof was born and raised by a Uyghur family in Australia — her parents emigrated to Australia from Xinjiang, China 35 years ago.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is home to more than 11 million Uyghurs, an ethnic minority in the region who are mostly Muslims and speak Turkic, a language similar to Turkish.
More than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities are believed to have been targeted, detained and indoctrinated by Chinese authorities since 2017.
China’s foreign ministry and state media have repeatedly denied the allegations saying the camps are “vocational education centres”, and accused western media of fabricating stories about Uyghurs and Xinjiang.
But Ms Mezensof knows only one truth — her husband is currently behind bars in China because he is Uyghur.
In 2016, when Ms Mezensof was 22, she travelled to Xinjiang for the first time and met Mr Taher.
“There was like this kind of spark … it sounds silly and so cliche, but I feel like honestly it was love at first sight,” she said.
“From that moment when I first spoke to him, I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.
“He was just such a loving, caring and kind person.”
‘People were disappearing’
After marrying in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital city, Ms Mezensof applied for an Australian visa for Mr Taher. The visa was granted on April 1, 2017.
“It was around this time when we were hearing of some unrest happening in the capital city,” she told 7.30.
“We were hearing whispers from people about how people were disappearing in the middle of the night.
“It never crossed my mind that something like that could be happening.”
In early 2017, China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities was ramping up, with a massive arbitrary detention program.
The reasons behind detention can vary and could be as minor as wearing a headscarf, having a beard, or traveling overseas for vacation.
Mr Taher was on alert and the couple wanted to leave Xinjiang as soon as possible. They booked flights to Melbourne for April 12, but they never made it to the airport.
The couple’s worst fears were realised on the night of April 10, when police came knocking.
“They confiscated my husband’s passport and one of the first things they asked was, had my husband travelled overseas,” Ms Mezensof recalled.
“Prior to us getting married, my husband travelled to Turkey and he lived and worked there for about a year so.
“So hearing that straightaway, they were just like, OK, we have to continue this at the police station, and then they took him out.”
He did not return that night. It was the last time Ms Mezensof saw her husband for more than two years.
After being questioned by local police for three days, Mr Taher was taken to a detention centre for 10 months before transferring to a concentration camp.
Mr Taher was unexpectedly released on May 22, 2019, Ms Mezensof said.
Several weeks later, the couple reunited at the Urumqi airport.
“I was at work when I received the call, I was just like screaming,” Ms Mezensof recalled.
Later, Mr Taher told her what had occurred behind the high walls of the concentration camp.
“He said it was constant brainwashing … it just sounded crazy,” Ms Mezensof said.
“Learning about the Chinese Communist Party, reading books, and memorising speeches.
“After they released him, police officials were still keeping a really close eye on him.
“They pretty much called him whenever they got the chance. It was constant surveillance.”
Ms Mezensof’s six-month Chinese visa was running out, but the couple was unable to retrieve Mr Taher’s passport from Chinese authorities.
After her application for visa extension was rejected, she had to leave Xinjiang, arriving back in Australia at the end of 2019.
Ms Mezensof’s plan to return to China was hindered by the coronavirus pandemic. Unable to travel, the couple stayed in contact over the phone.
But on the morning of May 19, 2020, Ms Mezensof noticed something was up: her messages went unanswered for hours.
“I was freaking out … every time I’d text, he’d always get back to me,” she recalled.
“I was constantly calling him and video calling him, and he just wouldn’t answer.
“Then that was when I found out that [police] had come in and taken him again.”
She said her husband was detained again on that day and allegedly taken to a camp until August 30, 2020.
Mr Taher’s Australian permanent residency was granted shortly before his release.
But only weeks later, Mr Taher was detained for a third time.
7.30 has seen a notice of arrest issued by Hami police in Xinjiang on October 23, 2020.
According to the notice, Mr Taher was arrested for the alleged crime of “organising, leading and participating in terrorist organisation” and was detained in Yizhou District’s detention centre in Hami, south-east of the capital city Urumqi.
‘Extremely harsh sentence’
Ms Mezensof said her husband’s court hearing occurred in January, where his family attended a court in Hami.
Two weeks ago, on April 1, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, Ms Mezensof said.
“My husband had been sentenced to 25 years prison by the [Chinese Communist Party], all because of time that he spent in Turkey,” she said.
“In their eyes, what they’ve convicted him of is separatism. What they’ve got on him is that when he went to Turkey, [they claim] he basically organised and participated in these kinds of political activities to try and establish an independent country.
The Chinese embassy in Australia and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to 7.30’s questions by deadline.
Ms Mezensof said neither herself nor her husband’s family in Xinjiang had received any written court document or notice about her husband’s conviction.
7.30 has approached local authorities in Hami multiple times to obtain Mr Taher’s verdict and verify his whereabouts — the attempts were unsuccessful.
His name does not appear on China’s Judicial Process Information website relating to legal cases.
7.30 has also seen a police clearance issued by the Turkish authorities on January 2017, saying Mr Taher has “no criminal records”.
“I remember just sitting and crying and shaking my head,” Ms Mezensof said of learning his sentence.
“He’s 30 now, if he carries out these 25 years, he’s going to be 55 and I’m going to be over 50 … that can’t be true.”
Sophie Richardson, the China director of international advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the case is “horrifying”.
“Twenty five years is a real outlier. That is an extraordinarily harsh sentence,” she told 7.30.
“One of the pieces of information we uncovered was a Chinese government list of 26 so called sensitive countries … many of them have Muslim majority populations and Turkey is on that list.
“It’s a very common place for [Uyghur] people to go and study or travel to or have business with, and presumably that was the trigger issue here.”
‘Crimes against humanity’
Human Rights Watch has released a legal assessment today which concludes that the Chinese government has committed and is continuing to commit crimes against humanity in Xinjiang against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic communities.
Ms Richardson said it is a significant but warranted step for the organisation to use the term “crimes against humanity”.
“It’s a term that refers to widespread systematic concerted crimes committed by authorities against a population and these kinds of abuses can take place in wartime or in peacetime,” she said.
“Crimes against humanity are among some of the most serious violations under international law.”
The new report sets out the evidentiary basis for the use of the term and has uncovered a long and distressing list of crimes against humanity that the Chinese government commits.
They range from mass surveillance, mass arrests, mass arbitrary detention in forced disappearances, sexual violence and forced labour that are targeted at Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
She said governments around the world, including Australia, should respond to the findings accordingly.
“We believe that idea has to be challenged, and that it’s imperative to contemplate investigations on this basis of Chinese government officials.”
Last month, the United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres said the UN is holding “serious negotiations” with China to gain unfettered access to Xinjiang for investigation.
Twenty seven countries including Australia and the UK, have formally expressed concern over China’s treatment of Uyghurs.
But Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye dismissed that allegation by holding a press conference in Canberra two weeks ago alongside high ranking Xinjiang officials, saying the government maintains “ethnic harmony” in Xinjiang while cracking down on terrorism.
HRW stopped short of using the term “genocide” in the latest report, but Ms Richardson said the report does not preclude that finding.
“We’re very clear that if at such time, we are able to show the intent that’s typically required for something like a genocide prosecution, we will have no trouble saying so,” she said.
“The key next step really is for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to say that she will push for an investigation outside the country and move to assemble evidence.
In a statement to 7.30, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said it “is aware of the specific case but for privacy reasons we cannot provide further detail”.
“The Foreign Minister recently set out the Australian Government’s grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang,” the statement said.
“The Australian Government stands ready to provide consular assistance to Australian citizens overseas, but note our bilateral consular agreement with China only allows us access to Australian citizens who have entered China on an Australian passport.
“We are not entitled to provide consular assistance to anyone who is not an Australian citizen in China.”
For Ms Mezensof, all she wants is to be with her husband and have a normal life.
“It feels like I’m telling a story that’s not my own,” she said.
“Growing up in Australia, being born and raised here, and then hearing something like that, it just seems so unreal. But I lived through this.
“My life wasn’t supposed to be like this. I just wanted to have a normal, boring life like everyone else.”
Watch the story on tonight’s 7.30 on ABC TV or stream on ABC iview.