The below article was published by Radio Free Asia, photo credit: AFP
Five relatives of a Uyghur trader who died after being freed from an internment camp in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are in prison, according to officials, while one other is believed to have died in a camp after being ordered home from Egypt.
Kurbanjan Abdukerim, 54, passed away four days after his Feb. 23 release from one of the facilities in the XUAR’s vast network of camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since early 2017, his former neighbor Zibibulla recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service, speaking from exile in an undisclosed location in Europe.
The well-known businessman was detained in early 2018 from his home township of Azaq, in Atush (in Chinese, Atushi), a county-level city of around 270,000 people that is the capital of Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture in the cotton- and grape-growing region of southwestern XUAR.
At the time of his detention, Kurbanjan was reportedly healthy and weighed around 100 kilograms (220 pounds), said Zibibulla, who declined to provide his family name for fear of reprisal against relatives still in the XUAR. But by the time he was released three years later, Kurbanjan was down to 53 kilograms (117 pounds) and he died soon after of unknown causes.
While investigating his case, RFA learned from Zibibulla that Kurbanjan’s brother, Seyit’akhun is currently serving a prison sentence in Aghu Prison in Atush, reportedly for having sent two of his sons to Egypt to study.
Seyit’akhun, one of four siblings, sent his sons Ibrahim and Ezimet to Egypt to study in 2013 after consulting with his older brother Abdukerim.
In 2017, Seyit’akhun returned to Atush from Kyrgyzstan, where his family regularly traded Chinese fabrics, after being called home by police, Zibibulla said. Upon his return, he was made to force his sons to return to the XUAR from Egypt and all three were taken into custody.
“After returning to Atush, they detained Kurbanjan’s younger brother Seyit’akhun Abdukerim because his children had studied in Egypt, told him he had to bring his children back, and forced his children back from Egypt,” Zibibulla said.
According to Zibibulla, Seyit’akhun was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the “crime” of having sent two of his children to Egypt to study.
“Seyit’akhun was sentenced to 18 years. His children were also sentenced at the same time, they’re in jail.”
Perceived religious extremism
Egypt is among several countries blacklisted by authorities for travel by Uyghurs because of a perceived threat of religious extremism, and RFA has documented several instances where people have been detained for overseas visits or maintaining ties abroad.
Beginning in early July 2017, more than 200 Uyghurs, many of them religious students at Al-Azhar, were detained in Egypt after being rounded up in restaurants or at their homes, with others seized at airports as they tried to flee to safer countries, sources said in earlier reports.
Dozens were then deported back to Xinjiang, where rights groups said they faced a serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture, while many who had earlier gone home on their own in response to a Chinese government order to return for “registration” were also taken into custody.
Zibibulla told RFA that another nephew of Kurbanjan’s and one of his nieces, Imran and Madina Hekimjan were also detained and later imprisoned after being forced to return from Egypt, where they were studying at the time.
“They were also in Egypt and were locked up in prison after being called back,” he said.
He said Kurbanjan’s nephew, Ilham Qari, was also forced to return to the region from Egypt and later died in an XUAR camp, as did the son of Kurbanjan’s brother-in-law, Ilhamjan Mamat—not long after which his body was returned to his family.
Zibibulla claimed that Ilham’s father, Mamatjan, had gone on to experience “significant trauma and psychological problems,” being unable to deal with his son’s death.
RFA had confirmed Zibibulla’s claim about Ilham’s death through an investigation in 2018.
A government employee in the family’s home village of Böger confirmed that Seyit’akhun had been ordered back to Atush from the place where he was living and conducting business “in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek” and that he was detained for having sent his children to study in Egypt.
“It’s been about three years … He’s now serving his term in Aghu Prison in Atush,” she said, adding that Seyit’akhun had been sentenced to 12 years in prison, rather than 18, as Zibibulla had claimed.
Another employee from the government office in Böger confirmed the imprisonment of the niece and nephews, noting that three of the students had received sentences of between seven and nine years.
“There are four of them,” he said, referring to Kurbanjan’s niece and nephews.
The employee said that Ibrahim was sentenced to nine years, Ezimet to seven years, and Madina to eight. He said he was “unclear” on the sentence that Imran received.
“For the first one, it’s been over a year—a year or two. The later ones, it’s been a year—maybe a bit longer,” he said.
“Basically, they were detained one after the other. First, the oldest son, and then the others. [The higher-level officials] don’t talk openly with us about the details, or about what they’ve done.”
Lastly, RFA was able to speak with an official from the vicinity of Ilham Qari’s home who, when asked for the number of his family members to speak with them about his death, did not deny it.
“The family’s residence is a little bit far from us and we don’t have their contact information,” the official said.
RFA was unable to independently confirm details about Kurbanjan Abdukerim’s health at the time of his passing or the cause of his death.
However, questions remain about the cause of his drastic weight loss in detention, including whether it was the result of malnutrition or an infectious disease he might have contracted in the camp. It was also unclear to what extent his weight loss contributed to his death.
Chinese officials have said the camps are centers for “vocational training,” but reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment—including systematic rape—and political indoctrination.
Amid increasing international scrutiny, authorities in the region have begun to send detainees to work at factories as part of an effort to label internment camps “vocational centers,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labor conditions.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.