LONDON — A Uighur woman living in the Netherlands said on Saturday that she helped publicize secret Chinese government documents that shed light on how Beijing runs mass detention camps holding Muslim ethnic minorities.
She recounted how she lived in fear after she and her former husband received death threats and were contacted by Chinese security officers while journalists were preparing to report on the documents.
Asiye Abdulaheb, 46, said in a telephone interview that she was involved in the release of 24 pages of documents published by Western news outlets last month, and was speaking out now to protect herself and her family from retaliation.
The documents, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and examined by journalists around the world, followed an earlier leak of 403 pages of internal papers to The New York Times that described how the authorities created, managed and justified the continuing crackdown on one million or more ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs.
A Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant, first reported on Ms. Abdulaheb’s role in the dissemination of that second set of documents, based on interviews with her and her ex-husband, Jasur Abibula. Both are Dutch citizens who have lived in the Netherlands since 2009, and they have a 6-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.
Ms. Abdulaheb said in an hourlong interview in Mandarin Chinese with The Times that she had decided to speak out in the hopes that the publicity would dissuade the Chinese authorities from seeking to harm her or her family.
She said they already knew she had the documents, and she had told Dutch police officers about her situation. She added that the danger of her situation became evident after her husband returned from a trip to Dubai in mid-September during which Chinese security officers told him about the documents, interrogated him about Ms. Abdulaheb and tried to recruit him to spy on her.
“I thought that this thing has to be made public,” she said. “The Chinese police would definitely find us. The people in Dubai had told my ex-husband, ‘We know about all your matters. We have a lot of people in the Netherlands.’”
Ms. Abdulaheb said she had worked in government offices in Xinjiang, a vast northwestern region of China where the official crackdown on Muslims has taken place, but declined to go into detail.
In the interview Saturday, she confirmed that she received and helped leak the 24 pages, but she declined to explain who had sent her the documents. She said Chinese officers had told Mr. Abibula they wanted to find out who had passed her the material.
The Times was part of the group coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an independent nonprofit based in Washington, that reported on the second set of leaked documents on Xinjiang.
Ms. Abdulaheb said someone electronically sent her the 24 pages of internal Chinese documents in June.
“When I got the documents and looked at them, I concluded this was very important,” she said. “I thought the best thing to do was to put them out publicly.”
After she posted a screenshot of one page of the documents on Twitter, hoping to draw attention, a German researcher on Xinjiang, Adrian Zenz, and another expert on the region reached out to her. They then put her in touch with a journalist, she said.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists later partnered with 17 other organizations, including The Times, to publish revelations on internment camps based on the 24-page set of documents.
That article came a week after The Times published a report based on 403 leaked pages that shed light on the origins and expansion of the crackdown in Xinjiang. The Times report said the source of its documents was a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity.
In a statement Saturday, the consortium declined to say whether Ms. Abdulaheb was the source for its report. “ICIJ does not comment on its sources,” it said. It also reported that Mr. Zenz said Saturday that he did not give the documents to ICIJ.
The two exposés sharpened international debate over the Chinese government’s intense crackdown across the region. Since 2017, the Chinese Communist Party has overseen a wave of mass detentions in Xinjiang, driving one million or more members of largely Muslim minority groups, especially Uighurs, into indoctrination camps intended to drastically weaken their Islamic beliefs and their attachment to the Uighur language, and make them loyal to the party.
Initially, Chinese officials brushed away questions and reports about the detentions. But late last year, Beijing shifted its response: The Chinese authorities have since acknowledged the existence of the program, but defended the camps as job-training centers that teach the Mandarin Chinese language and practical skills, and that also warn people of the dangers of religious extremism.
In past decades, tensions between largely Muslim ethnic minorities and China’s Han ethnic majority in Xinjiang have occasionally erupted in violence. About half the region’s population is made up of minority groups, including 11.7 million Uighurs and 1.6 million Kazakhs. Both groups’ languages and cultures set them apart from Han people.
In 2009, the year Ms. Abdulaheb left China, ethnic rioting erupted in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, and nearly 200 people were killed, most of them Han, according to government reports. China has cited that bloodshed and a succession of subsequent attacks on Han targets to defend its tough policies in Xinjiang.
The leaks have challenged the official Chinese position by revealing the coercive underpinnings of the camps, and by hinting at dissent within the Chinese political system over the harsh policies in Xinjiang. Chinese government spokesmen and official media outlets have denounced the reports, calling them “fake news” and claiming they were part of a conspiracy to undermine stability in the region.
In the Netherlands, Ms. Abdulaheb discovered that several of her social media accounts and a Hotmail account were hacked after she posted the tweet in June with the excerpt from the documents.
She said she also got a message written in Uighur on Facebook Messenger that said, “If you don’t stop, you’ll end up cut into pieces in the black trash can in front of your doorway.”
“That made me scared,” she said.
Then in early September, an old friend of her ex-husband, someone who worked in a court in Xinjiang, contacted him after a long period of silence, Ms. Abdulaheb said. The friend invited Mr. Abibula to Dubai and offered to pay his expenses. He flew to Dubai on Sept. 9 and was met by his friend and several Chinese security officers who were ethnic Han, she said.
After days of questioning Mr. Abibula, the officers handed him a USB stick and told him to put it into his ex-wife’s laptop, which would give them access to the computer’s contents, she said.
Ms. Abdulaheb’s description of harassment and threats could not be independently verified. Still, her account fit a pattern that other Uighurs abroad have described. They have also recounted threats and pressure coming from China to remain silent or provide information to agents.
Despite such threats, growing numbers of Uighurs and Kazakhs have spoken out, often using Twitter and Facebook to publicize family members in Xinjiang who have disappeared, possibly into re-education camps or prisons. A Uighur-American woman in the Washington area, Rushan Abbas, told The Times about family members who had gone missing after she had spoken publicly about the camps.
In an interview Saturday, Mr. Zenz, the researcher, said that for Ms. Abdulaheb, “going public makes her safer” from potential retaliation.
“So if something happens to her now, it will become a new story,” Mr. Zenz said. “Silence would have been so much worse.”
Ms. Abdulaheb said she felt relieved to have revealed her identity.
“I have told everything,” she said. “My mind is calm now.”
Elian Peltier and Claire Moses reported from London, and Edward Wong from Washington.