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Human Rights

Chinese Christian ex-prisoner arrives in U.S. to testify on human rights abuses

April 14, 2022 7:08am

Updated: April 14, 2022 10:31am

A Chinese Christian national who was held for 10 months in a Xinjian detention camp arrived in the U.S. on Friday to provide evidence of crimes against humanity by the Chinese government, according to a report by Axios.

"I feel so happy to safely arrive with my family in America. For us, this means finally realizing a long-held hope," Ovalbek said after arriving at Dulles International Airport on Apr. 8

"First, I'm grateful to our God. I'm also grateful to the U.S. government and the friends who helped us the whole time. We would not have been able to safely arrive in America without their help,” he added.

Ovalbek Turdakun is the first Christian detained in Xinjiang to come forward to share his experience. Although the Chinese government has claimed the goal of the camps there is to re-educate Islamic extremists, a small number of Christians and people without religious affiliation have also been detained.

He is also a notable witness because he has studied law. While held in the detention camp, Ovalbek kept an eye out for actions by Chinese authorities that could potentially have violated international law, according to Conor Healy, government director at surveillance technology trade publication IPVM whose work on Uyghur surveillance by Chinese authorities brought him into contact with Ovalbek and his family.

Ovalbek’s testimony is key to establishing International Criminal Court jurisdiction on the repression in Xinjiang. China is not a member of the ICC, but human rights lawyers are assembling evidence of forced deportations of Uyghurs and other targeted minorities from neighboring Central Asian countries, like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who are both ICC members.

Ovalbek, who is ethnically Kyrgyz, was arrested by Chinese authorities in Ulugqat County in southwest Xinjiang who accused him of staying longer than permitted on a previous trip to Kyrgyzstan. He reports he was subjected to multiple interrogations, locked in a “tiger chair” and kept awake with electric shocks, and given mysterious injections that left him temporarily lame. Interrogators also repeatedly questioned Ovalbek’s loyalty to China over his marriage to a Kyrgyz woman.

After Ovalbek was released from the camp in Nov. 2018 and held under house arrest for a year, he left Xinjian with his wife and child and crossed into Kyrgyzstan on foot.

The Kyrgyz government initially granted Ovalbek a special residence permit but stopped renewing it, putting him at risk of deportation back to China.

In Dec. 2021, Healy and some American friends traveled to Kyrgyzstan and helped the Ovalbek family obtain tourist visas to Turkey, from where they applied with the State Department for entry into the U.S.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) pressed State and the Department of Homeland Security to expedite their travel to the U.S.

"I am thrilled that the [Ovalbek] family has arrived safely in the United States," Smith, who is the top Republican on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, told Axios in a statement. "Once they have settled in, I anticipate hearing testimony on Xinjiang's forced labor camps."