That day, Yakufu, a 43-year-old ethnic Uyghur, had been freed from a Chinese detention camp and allowed to return home to her three teenage children and aunt and uncle in Xinjiang, western China. It was the first time she’d seen her family in nearly 16 months.
The same night, Yakufu was even able to video call her cousin, Nyrola Elima, who lives in Sweden.
“I didn’t recognize her at the very beginning, because she looked so pale. She looked so weak and she had short hair,” Elima said. “She was terrified, she didn’t dare to speak too much with me.”
Elima quickly passed on the news to Yakufu’s parents and sister who live in Australia.
“I can’t describe my feelings, how happy I was when I heard my sister had been released,” said Marhaba Yakub Salay, Yakufu’s sister. “At the time, I still remember my heart was going to explode.”
Yakufu had spent more than a year in Yining Detention Center — her second stint in Xinjiang’s shadowy network of internment camps. Before that, she’d been held in a different camp for 10 months. Yakufu’s apparent crime was transferring savings to her parents in Australia, to help them buy a house.
The US State Department estimates that since 2017, up to two million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities could have passed through the camp system, which China calls vocational training centers designed to fight extremism. Leaked documents seen by CNN show the extent of the mass surveillance apparatus that China uses to monitor Uyghurs, who could be sent to a camp for perceived infractions such as wearing a long beard or headscarf, or owning a passport.
For the family, having Yakufu back home was all that mattered. But her freedom was shortlived.
A day later, Chinese authorities took her away again, this time to Yining People’s Hospital in western Xinjiang, her family said.
They said the authorities didn’t give them a medical reason for her admission to hospital, but they did pass a message to her aunt and uncle: stop your daughter, Nyrola, from tweeting.
“I told the entire world”
For months, Nyrola Elima had been campaigning to secure her cousin’s release from her home in Sweden, more than 3,000 miles (4,900 kilometers) away from Xinjiang, by lobbying parliamentarians, speaking with NGOs, and tweeting.
Elima left Xinjiang nearly a decade ago to study and to get a better job. She now works as a data analyst and has a Swedish passport and husband.
She says that since she began speaking publicly — she gave her first print interview to the Washington Post in September 2019 — the Chinese authorities have been tracking her closely; in Xinjiang, police officers have approached her parents about her activities multiple times. But she says she feels she had “no options left” other than to speak out, as silence didn’t help her family.
After the short video call with her cousin, Elima posted a Twitter thread about her release, saying she was “overwhelmed” with relief, but worried because she felt her cousin was “not fully free.”
“I put it on Twitter, I told the entire world,” Elima says. “They took her immediately to the hospital. This is the way they want me to stop, they want to censor me.”
Elima’s mother in Xinjiang asked her to stop tweeting about the case.
But after Yakufu was taken to hospital, the family didn’t hear anything about her for weeks, and no visits or phone calls were allowed. Elima became increasingly anxious.
On September 19, she tweeted again about her cousin’s mysterious detention in hospital, posting: “I put up with it for fourteen days, kept my mouth shut for fourteen days, listened to my parents educate me for fourteen days, and tried to persuade my sister as a peacemaker for fourteen days. In those fourteen days, my sister’s children cried at me, begging me to stop speaking up, twice. So if you have something to say, just come directly to me, I’m willing to talk to you. Just stop pushing my parents and the children. My parents are really going to be sick, and the kids are really going to have a breakdown.”
Within 30 minutes, Elima said police officers arrived at her mother’s house in Xinjiang with printed copies of the tweets. Again, they demanded that they stop their daughter from speaking out.
“(They) said, Look, your daughter is talking about the Chinese Communist Party,” Elima said. “‘She’s making (the) Chinese government look very, very bad. You need to tell your daughter, stop it.'”
Rian Thum, a Uyghur historian at the University of Nottingham in the UK, said it was the first time he’s heard of police directly confronting family members with social media posts by Uyghurs abroad. “It shows that the Chinese authorities are very concerned about international opinion, that they’re monitoring Twitter, which is of course banned in China,” he said.
Elima says the Chinese authorities confronted her family about her tweets three times. The first time was in August, when Elima reposted a Chinese state media article: she was highlighting that the piece used a picture of her mother apparently happily celebrating International Women’s Day in March — in reality, during that period her cousin was in her first detention camp in 2018.
“It is propaganda,” Elima said. If her happiness, and that other Uyghurs portrayed in state media, is real, “then why (are) there so many Uyghurs outside looking for their family members?” she asked. “Open the region. Let everyone travel there freely or let the Uyghur people go abroad.”
Elima’s social media is not the only thing under surveillance. In 2017, she says Chinese authorities demanded a photograph of her Swedish passport, and her Swedish address, via her mother over WeChat. She provided the details and moved house straight after.
“I am terrified every day,” Elima said.
“What we see in this case is intimidation by the Chinese police through family members (to) other family members abroad,” said Thum. “It’s also a case that shows how the Chinese government thinks about Uyghurs as threats, and how they think about international connections.”
Faced with the increasing threats to her family, Elima has again decided to speak publicly, giving her first interview on-camera to CNN. “I feel there’s a gun behind my head, and I feel that I’m playing Russian (roulette) with the Chinese government,” Elima said. “Every time when I move, I may well face very serious consequences, and my family members will pay for that.”
Many Uyghurs abroad are faced with the same gut-wrenching decision: do as instructed and stay silent, or risk speaking out to try to offer some protection to relatives, in the hope that if their names become well-known it will be more conspicuous if they disappear.
A day after Elima’s interview with CNN in December, the family got more bad news.
They were told via a phone call from the authorities that Mayila Yakufu had been taken from the hospital to the detention center in late November.
Proving her innocence
Yakufu’s sister and parents live in Adelaide, South Australia.
Her sister, Marhaba Yakub Salay, 32, said Yakufu had been a model citizen in Xinjiang, working multiple jobs as a successful insurance saleswoman and a Mandarin teacher. She is fluent in Chinese and Uyghur and understands English.
“She worked really hard, because she’s (a) single mother of three,” Salay said. The children’s father had left when they were very young, “so she knows she has to be very strong.”
The Chinese government says the “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang are part of a “poverty alleviation” scheme to help train poor rural workers to learn Chinese and find employment. In a Xinjiang government press conference in Urumqi on November 27, videos were shown of seven Uyghurs who had “graduated” from the camps. They all praised the system, saying it had helped them to turn away from extremism and find good jobs.
“I’m now a workshop manager in a garment factory in Hotan County,” said Tusongnisha Aili, a woman in one of the videos. “I received a good education at the training center. I learned fashion design, sewing techniques related to making clothing.”
But multiple Uyghurs who have spoken to CNN after they left the camp system have dismissed these claims from officials. They say many of the people taken to the camps already spoke fluent Chinese, had a good education and salary, or weren’t even living in China at the time.
The first time Yakufu was taken into a camp, on March 2, 2018, she was not accused of any specific offense. But the second time she was detained, in April 2019, she was accused of “financing terrorist activities” — a charge experts say has been leveled against multiple Uyghurs who sent money outside of China. She also had a sum of nearly 500,000 RMB ($76,000) confiscated by the authorities, and her aunt and uncle were put under house arrest, the family says.
In July 2013, Mayila Yakufu and her aunt and uncle sent nearly $135,000 Australian dollars ($100,000) to the family in Australia to buy a house, in three separate transfers from the Bank of China to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
To prove Yakufu’s innocence, the family has meticulously documented the bank transfers and house purchase records and sent the evidence to the Australian and Chinese governments.
Australian Federal Police have confirmed to the family in writing that they are not under criminal investigation in Australia, although they would not comment on the case to CNN.
“It really shows you the extent that the Chinese government will go to, and the very innocuous activities that can result in imprisonment,” Rian Thum said.
When asked about Yakufu’s case, the Chinese Mission to the EU told CNN that her family were believed to be members of the “Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organization,” which the Chinese government labels a terrorist organization.
A spokesperson said Yakufu had been informed in writing that financial transactions with her family would be illegal. “In spite of that, she still provided funds to them. By so doing, she was suspected of violating article 120 of China’s Criminal Law for abetting terrorist activities,” the spokesperson added. “She was arrested by the public security authority in May 2019 and the case is currently under trial.”
In a statement, Yakufu’s family denied any links to terror groups and said the mission’s allegations were “demonstrably false.” If they had links to terror groups, Chinese authorities wouldn’t have let them travel freely in and out of China in the years after the transaction was made in 2013, they said.
In July, the family asked Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) for help, and the department sent back the response they received from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, which read: “Ms Yakefu Mayila was prosecuted in July 2019 for allegedly financing terrorist activities and is currently in good health.”
In an email to CNN, DFAT said it cannot comment on individual cases, but added that Australia has “serious concerns” about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, and has “consistently urged China to cease the arbitrary detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang.
In the recent Xinjiang press conference, CNN asked for an official response to comments from US President-elect Joe Biden, who said that China’s policy against the Uyghurs amounted to “genocide.”
“As for the claim that Xinjiang is implementing a genocide policy, it is completely a false proposition and a vicious attack on Xinjiang by overseas anti-China forces,” said Elijan Anayit, the spokesperson of the Information Office of the People’s Government of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
“My daughter is suffering”
In Adelaide, Yakufu’s father, Yakefu Shabier, and mother, Bahaer Maimitiming, live with the burden of knowing the house they reside in may have caused their daughter to be imprisoned.
“I feel pain every day, as if I am stepping on nails, because the cost of this house is my daughter’s suffering,” said Shabier, 73. “My dream and hope is that my daughter be freed from oppression as soon as possible and reunited with us.”
The couple first came to Australia in 2007, to visit their son who had emigrated there several years earlier. After their son died in a drowning accident on New Year’s Eve in 2008, they decided to stay in Australia permanently. Their daughter, Marhaba Yakub Salay, then moved there in 2011. But Yakufu, who had children, chose to stay in Xinjiang.
The family now runs a Uyghur restaurant in central Adelaide called Tangritah.
“Ever since we came to Australia, we worked extremely hard, we opened a restaurant, and we are trying our best to be good citizens and contribute to Australia,” said Maimitiming, 64. “We are not terrorists.”
Salay said working is the only way her parents know how to deal with the pain caused by her sister’s detention. “They want to rescue their daughter, but can’t do much here,” Salay said. “They don’t know what to do. So, they just push themselves to work hard.”
The family’s goal is to keep the pressure on the Chinese government by highlighting what is going on in Xinjiang.
“What happened to my family, it’s also happening to other Uyghur families,” Elima said. “Our family’s case is just (the tip of the) iceberg.”
“It’s very difficult to know whether their loved ones are still alive in some cases, or whether they’re interned in these camps, some of which have really horrific conditions,” Rian Thum said. “So there’s a major wave of depression and trauma that Uyghurs outside of China are suffering.”
“China threatens Uyghurs overseas, and it works,” Salay said. “China uses my sister as a hostage strategy.”
This strategy is one which kept their own family quiet for a long time, she adds. “Many Uyghurs censor themselves,” Salay said. “We were one of them.”
Now Yakufu is back in detention, Salay only hopes they can try to keep her from harm. “The situation gets worse and worse when I keep silent,” Salay said. “Now I have no choice. If I don’t speak up, she (might) end up in one of the dark corners in the prison.”
Going public is not a decision that comes lightly for the family. Elima is battling what she calls “survivor’s guilt.” At night she lies awake in her “comfortable bed” and worries about the kind of conditions her cousin is sleeping in.
She remembers the last snatched conversation she had with her cousin in September.
That day, Yakufu had told her: “Please tell my parents I miss them so much … I dream about them every night.
“That is the only one way I can meet my parents, my children, my sister, your parents and you.”
Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump
“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.
The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.
“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”
But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.
On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.
Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.
A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.
The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.
Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.
Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.
Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.
A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.
But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.
The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.
Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.
A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.
Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.
The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.
Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout
5 min read
Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.
It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.
The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.
“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.
In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.
“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.
“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”
Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.
He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same.
“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”
Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.
The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.
But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.
Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.
Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”
The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”
The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.
“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided.
“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”
Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.
“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”
The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.
He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”
But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.
He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.
“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.
“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.
“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”
Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”
How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers
Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.
The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.
After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.
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