Renowned Uyghur poet dies following prison release in Xinjiang

Abdulla Sawut was serving time for his writings about Uyghur revolutionary history and heroes.
By Shohret Hoshur for RFA Uyghur
2022.12.29
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Renowned Uyghur poet dies following prison release in Xinjiang Uyghur writer and poet Abdulla Sawut in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of Abduweli Ayup

A renowned Uyghur writer and poet in poor health when released from prison died on Dec. 18 because he could not obtain food or medical treatment amid a strict coronavirus lockdown, according to social media posts and information from relevant government organizations. 

Abdulla Sawut, 72, was an important figure in contemporary Uyghur literature. His most famous novels and novellas are The Bloody Shore, The Thunder, and The Unrusty Sword, The Chain of Life, Shiraq, and The Saint Fire

In his writings, he highlighted the revolutionary history of East Turkistan, Uyghurs’ name for Xinjiang, and elevated the status of Uyghur historical heroes. 

Sawut, who was convicted of advocating ethnic separatism and attempting to divide the country, was detained in 2017, according to the nonprofit human rights advocacy group Uyghur Hjelp, based in Norway. 

Abduweli Ayup, an activist who runs Uyghur Hjelp, posted news of the prolific writer’s death on Twitter, after hearing about it from a Uyghur scholar who recently went abroad.

After making inquiries about the poet, Ayup said he learned that he was in poor health when authorities released him from prison two months ago.

“I think the Chinese authorities arrested him because in his writings he always wrote about Uyghur national heroes,” Ayup said, adding that Sawut also “wrote vividly” about the influence of the Second East Turkistan Republic (1944-49) in what is now Xinjiang and its unsuccessful attempt to break away from China rule.

“And in his writings, he never flattered Chinese government policy or sold his soul for personal gain,” he added.

An employee at the Kizilsu, or Kezilesu in Chinese, Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture Police Bureau later told RFA that Sawut’s name was on a list of inmates, but that the man died at his home on Dec. 18 following his release.

“Abdulla Sawut died at his home in Aktu, and he had faced a lack of food and medical treatment because of the COVID lockdown,” he said.

Sawut was born in Ujme town in Aktu county, Aketao in Chinese, in 1950 and graduated from Kizilsu Teacher's School in 1974. He wrote in every literary genre and worked in cultural-educational sectors in the county for many years. He was named a “professional writer” from 1988 to 1996 by the writers' association of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Sawut’s name appears on a comprehensive list of Uyghurs arrested and detained by authorities in Xinjiang published by Uyghur Hjelp, also known as Uyghuryar. It says the writer was targeted when authorities began mass arrests of prominent Uyghurs, including intellectuals, in 2017, to purportedly prevent extremism and terrorism among predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in the restive region.

The information goes on to say that Sawut’s health suddenly deteriorated for unknown reasons, and that authorities released him when they became convinced he could not survive his illness. But once out of prison, Sawut could not get medical treatment or sufficient food during a lockdown in response to an outbreak of COVID-19 in Xinjiang in early August.

The outbreak of the highly infectious respiratory virus prompted China’s government to implement controversial zero-COVID policies with strict lockdowns. As a result, dozens of Uyghurs died from starvation or lack of access to medicine because they could not leave their homes.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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