Death of detained Uyghur imam underscores harsh conditions in Xinjiang re-education camps

Qeyimahun Qari survived 15 years in a prison only to die in an internment camp.
By Shohret Hoshur
2021.10.22
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Uyghur Muslims arrive at the Id Kah Mosque for morning prayers on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, June 26, 2017.
AFP

A Uyghur imam who survived 15 years in prison for separatism in northwestern China’s Xinjiang only to die during a two-year stint in an internment camp, raises questions of torture and highlights the abusive nature of the camp system that has drawn accusations of genocide, said Uyghurs with knowledge of the case.

Qeyimahun Qari, whose death in 2018 has only recently come to light, was sentenced in 1991 for separatism and served a 15-year sentence in the No. 1 prison in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi).

Authorities arrested him again in 2017 and put him in an internment camp, the usual practice with former prisoners, said a Uyghur from the same county as the imam and who is now living in exile.

“He was the imam of our No. 4 township mosque from 2007 to 2010,” said the source who is from Tokkuzak county in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture, where Qeyimahun lived and worked. “He was arrested in 2017 and died in 2018.”

“He was a healthy man who was able to handle all the physical work in courtyards and on farms, and no one had ever observed that he had any health issues, even on the day when he was working in a cornfield and was taken away by the police,” he said.

At the time of his initial arrest 30 years ago, Qeyimahun respected in his community for his religious and social activities as well as his charisma, he said.

Qeyimahun’s second arrest came when a village policeman seized him after morning prayers while the imam was taking water to his field, according to the source. At the time, Qeyimahun was 59 and had no health problems, said the Uyghur in exile.

About two years later, authorities handed over his dead body to his family, the source said.

Qeyimahun’s case underscores that the treatment of Uyghurs in the four-year-old internment camp system is far worse than regular prison life, said Memettursun Osman, a Uyghur former camp detainee.

“Based on my personal experience I can say that regulations and conditions in the camps, including torture are tenfold harsher than in prisons and other detention facilities before 2017,” he said.

China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a network of detention camps since 2017. Beijing has said that the camps are vocational training centers and has denied widespread and documented allegations that it has mistreated and tortured incarcerated Muslims.

Until their last breath

One police officer who had been stationed at a camp in Opal township for two years confirmed that Qeyimahun was found dead there at the end of 2018.

“I heard that the one with the name Qeyimahun Qari died in the camp,” said the officer who did not give his name.

Qeyimahun was rushed to the hospital a few hours before his death, the policeman said, adding that he did not know which illness or ailment the imam was suffering from.

“He died in the hospital,” he said.

“I don’t what he was taken to the hospital for,” he added.

Officers at police stations in two other townships where Qeyimahun had been held — Aral and Bulaqsu townships — told RFA that they were not authorized to speak about sensitive issues.

Because Qeyimahun was an imam who had overseen many weddings and ceremonies, the police frequently interrogated him inside the camp to try to obtain information about the Uyghurs who came to his mosque, the source said.

During the interrogation sessions, Qeyimahun declined to reveal their names and other personal details to prevent them from being arrested and detained, prompting authorities to torture him, said the source.

The former imam’s sudden death caused residents of Bulaqsu, where Qeyimahun lived and where his mosque was located, to fret over the condition of their relatives interned in the same camp, especially the elderly and the weak.

Because the interrogations and torture inside the camp were harsher than those that detainees were subjected to in prison, many Uyghurs confessed to charges they hadn’t committed.

Authorities also continued to hold some of the detainees after they confessed to “crimes” they were charged with, hoping to get them to expose the “crimes” of others, Memettursun said.

Authorities told the camp detainees that they would be released after they had demonstrated good behavior and had confessed to their “crimes,” he said.

Mehmettursun told RFA that during his detention in a camp in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture in southwestern Xinjiang, he saw other inmates “confess” to crimes just to avoid being tortured and then be transferred to a prison.

“I know they torture the detainees until they are about to take their last breath, and sometimes they don’t even care if the subject is still breathing or not,” he said.

Breaking the silence

Increasing international awareness of the camp system and other abuses including forced sterilization of women and forced labor has prompted parliaments in Canada, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Lithuania, as well the U.S. State Department to brand China’s actions in the region as genocide.

Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said the 43 countries made history with their statement condemning China’s atrocities against the Uyghur people and calling on China to grant the U.N. unfettered access to Xinjiang.

“Sadly, there have been many countries that are not speaking out on Uyghur genocide due to Chinese pressure or economic relations with China,” he told RFA. “Some are even shamelessly supporting and defending China’s ongoing genocide.”

Isa noted the signature of Turkey, where some 50,000 Uyghurs live, was important because China has used pressure and deceptive tactics in the past to keep Turkey silent on the Uyghur crisis.

“Apparently, these tactics backfired,” he said. “The signing of the joint statement by Turkey will definitely help break the silence of some Muslim countries and take active measures in the future.”

The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project also praised the action by the U.N. member states that signed the statement.

“U.N. member states have just taken the next step towards accountability for the Chinese government’s brutal treatment of Uyghurs,” said Omer Kanat, the organization’s executive director.

Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the U.N., later rejected what he called “groundless” accusations at a press conference on China's position on human rights issues.

“Ambassador Zhang said that the attempts by the U.S. and a few other countries to politicize and manipulate human rights issues will find no support,” said a statement on the website of China’s permanent mission to the U.N.

“People around the world are clear-eyed about the truth. More than 80 countries have made statements to support China.”

At a regular press conference in Beijing on Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin echoed Zhang’s comments, saying that “a small number of Western countries, based on disinformation, rumors and lies, keep attacking and maligning China on issues relating to Xinjiang and other matters and interfering in China’s domestic affairs with human rights as a disguise.”

Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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