September 25, 2018 / 1:39 PM / 3 months ago

'China's big mistake': Pakistanis lobby to free wives trapped in Xinjiang

BEIJING (Reuters) - Pakistani businessmen whose wives and children are trapped in China’s restive Xinjiang are traveling to Beijing to lobby their embassy, in hopes that the south Asian nation’s new government will pressure its ally for their release.

Pakistani businessman Mirza Imran Baig shows a picture of him and his wife Mailikemu Maimati as he sits outside the Pakistani embassy in Beijing, China, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Beijing has faced an outcry from activists, some governments and U.N. human rights experts over mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, and other Muslim groups, in the western region.

Mirza Imran Baig, 40, who trades between his home city of Lahore and Urumqui, the Xinjiang regional capital, said his wife was detained in a “re-education” camp in her native Bachu county for two months in May and June 2017 and had been unable to leave her hometown since her release.

His wife, Mailikemu Maimati, 33, and their four-year-old son, who are both Chinese nationals, are unable to get their passports back from Chinese authorities, he told Reuters outside the Pakistan embassy in Beijing.

“My ambassador says, ‘Wait, wait, wait, one day, two days.’ Okay, I wait,” Baig said late on Tuesday, after his meeting.

Reuters could not immediately reach the ambassador, Masood Khalid, to seek comment.

Beijing says it faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists in Xinjiang and has rejected accusations of mistreatment.

Asked about the Pakistani businessmen on Tuesday, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told a regular news briefing that he was not aware of the situation.

Muslim majority nations have mostly remained silent over the situation in Xinjiang.

Last month’s election of cricketing legend and firebrand nationalist Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister has fed the expectations of many for him to deliver on promises to create jobs, build an Islamic welfare state and restore the country’s image abroad.

Mian Shahid Ilyas, a businessman in Lahore who has been collecting details of cases and seeking government support, said he was optimistic the new government would help.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry in Islamabad did not reply to questions from Reuters on the Uighur spouses.

“A lot of people get married like us. It’s no problem. But in 2017 they start to seal everything off in Xinjiang,” Ilyas, who said his Chinese Uighur wife, a citizen of China, had been detained since April 2017, told Reuters by telephone.

Ilyas said he had confirmed details of 38 cases but believed there were more than 300 similar cases of Pakistani husbands whose wives and children, most of them Uighurs, had been stuck in Xinjiang for more than a year, in camps or confined to homes.

The handful of businessmen, including Baig, is traveling to China in groups of twos and threes, to avoid raising suspicion, parking themselves at the embassy to make their case, he said.

“This is China’s big mistake,” said Ilyas. “Before people did not know how they treated Muslims. Now, everyone knows.”

Reporting by Christian Shepherd and Philip Wen; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Saad Sayeed in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Tony Munroe and Clarence Fernandez

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