In a remote corner north of the Arctic Circle, Memettursun Omer gazes out the window at the swirling snowstorm outside as the tinny voice of a Chinese official blares from the mobile phone in his hand. An Uyghur Muslim from China’s remote north-west Xinjiang region, Omer has travelled about as far as he can go to escape the Chinese authorities – to the small Norwegian town of Kirkenes.
So far, he says, they have always managed to find him. On dozens of messages left on his phone since he left China, voices he says are those of Chinese agents wheedle, cajole and threaten. “We didn’t send you out there so you could behave like this,” drawls an official in one recording. “You’re forgetting who you are.”
Four years before, Omer says he was sent by the same handlers to Europe on a secret mission: to infiltrate and spy on Uyghur groups who were drawing attention to the human rights abuses being perpetrated against millions of their community and other ethnic minorities. Months before he left, Omer had been detained by the Chinese state after returning from working abroad. He says he was tortured, beaten and interrogated about his connections in Europe before being put through months of grooming, brainwashing and threats. Eventually, his handlers decided he had become a loyal Chinese citizen, willing to do the state’s bidding.