The widows of two ethnic minority Uyghur officials killed during a riot in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region accused security forces of turning their guns on their husbands, disputing claims by authorities that the men were executed by “terrorists” in the violence.
They made the claim more than two months after a "gang" of Uyghurs attacked a police station and government offices in Kashgar prefecture's Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county, leaving nearly 100 people dead—according to state media—in some of the worst violence to affect the troubled region.
The two officials—Dongbagh township chairman Gholam Tohti and the township’s ruling Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Committee secretary Abdugheni Turdi—had been held hostage by the attackers in the July 28 attack when they were gunned down by the security forces, the widows claimed.
Atigul Kerim, wife of Tohti, said that her husband was helping direct an operation to apprehend the suspects along with Turdi when the two were taken hostage.
The two officials were held by the suspects in a building in nearby Elishku township, which was promptly surrounded by security forces, she told RFA’s Uyghur Service, citing information she had received from her husband’s friend, the chief of police in Elishku, who had taken part in the operation.
“The chief told me, ‘We refused to negotiate with [the suspects] and demanded that they surrender unconditionally’,” Kerim said.
“In the meantime, [the security forces] received orders to shoot, which they began to do. Gholam cried out to them ‘don’t shoot, we are on your side,’ but the situation was so intense and noisy that even though he was using a bullhorn, they did not hear him. Somehow, he was shot in the chaos.”
Kerim said that after two months, neither she nor Turdi’s wife Tursungul Mijit had received any written notice about how their husbands were killed or how the state would care for their families, and that officials had simply told them the two men had been “killed by terrorists.”
“At first, I believed it, but then I did not because when I saw my husband’s corpse there were bullet holes, not knife wounds, on his chest,” she said.
Official reports had said the Uyghur attackers were armed with explosives as well as knives, axes and batons, and suggested they did not carry guns.
“My husband was shot in Nochi village and later my friends in Nochi told me that … the rioters had only a few knives, batons and axes. My husband was killed by bullets. How it is possible the rioters killed my husband,” she asked.
“If we were told the truth and the authorities admitted their mistake, I wouldn’t have been this angry, but they lied, saying that rioters killed my husband when he clearly had been shot. What kind of government would kill its own officials and lie about it?”
Tursungul Mijit said that she and Kerim had only been taken to see their husbands’ bodies “after we challenged the government upon hearing the news of their deaths.”
“I saw four bullet wounds on Abdugheni’s body, all of them on his chest,” she told RFA.
Mijit said authorities had told her at the time that some of the suspects might have had guns, but neither the police nor reports by state media had since confirmed that they did.
She said that her mother-in-law had wanted to petition the government over her son’s death, but relatives convinced her not to go out of fear that they would lose their jobs if the family spoke against the government.
“It has been two months and they haven’t given us any information about how my husband died or how they dealt with the situation. I have lost all of my patience,” she said.
According to Kerim, three of four other officials who were behind the operation to capture the suspects had ordered security forces to fire, despite knowing that Tohti and Turdi were being held as hostages.
She identified the three as Yarkand’s party secretary He Limen, chief of the Law and Politics Department Cheng Qian and chief of the Public Security Department Liu Bing, saying they lost their jobs for ordering the shooting. State media said the three had been sacked, with giving any reasons.
The fourth official, who she identified as Ehet Sayit, “disagreed on using force [to shoot the suspects],” she said, adding that he had retained his job.
Kerim did not provide the source of her information.
Upsurge in violence
The July 28 riot marked one of the worst clashes in Xinjiang since bloody riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009 between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese that left almost 200 people dead.
While the government said 96 people were killed in the riot, exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer said the death toll could have been high as 2,000, accusing the authorities of covering up a “massacre” of mostly Uyghur civilians.
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year antiterrorist campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.