HONG KONG—Ethnic minority Uyghurs from the far-west Chinese city of Urumqi say authorities attach strict conditions when they release the bodies of Uyghurs who die in custody. Hundreds of Uyghurs were detained as part of a broad crackdown after deadly clashes a year ago.
Members of this Turkic, mostly Muslim ethnic minority, which has chafed for years under Beijing’s rule, are also often in extremely poor physical and mental condition when they are released, residents say.
One Uyghur youth, who fled to the Netherlands and asked not to be named, said his sister, in her early forties, was detained July 5 last year along with her daughter, “while she was just walking down the street."
“On June 9, when I called home, I learned that they [authorities] brought my sister’s body home and told the family she died in jail. They returned her body without any explanation, just like that.”
“They released my niece ... but the police sexually harassed her, and now this 16-year-old who was a very nice girl before is on the streets. She doesn’t come home,” he said in an interview.
When a Uyghur detainee dies in custody, he said, a relative is summoned to “sponsor” the body and bring it home—after signing a pledge that “no information will leak out regarding this death, and they take the body out. Otherwise no one could get the body out.”
“To get the remains, the families must have a sponsor who is a government worker in the family. The sponsor agrees to all terms and promises to keep it quiet.”
“If there is no government worker, then the government will take someone from the family and incarcerate that family member as a ‘hostage’ until all religious burial ceremonies and events are carried out quietly without any issues or questions. Only then do they release their ‘hostage.’”
Violence erupted last July, in which Chinese officials say 197 people died. The government says about 1,700 people were also injured in the 5 July unrest, with Han Chinese making up most of the victims.
The violence, China's worst in decades, ended after troops were deployed, and security has remained tight ever since. Some 5,000 police officers have been recruited in the year since the clashes, and Urumqi's police chief Wang Mingshan said officers have been staging drills to deal with any similar emergencies.
The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress says that at least 300 Uyghurs are thought to have fled China since the clashes, and hundreds more are said to have been detained.
Chinese media say at least 25 people, mostly Uyghurs, have been tried and sentenced to death for related crimes.
Authorities also said unclaimed bodies have been cremated, which Uyghurs consider sacrilege.
Asked if any Uyghurs detained after the the July 2009 clashes had been cremated, one official replied: “Yes, some, but not a lot … Probably because they have no one to claim the bodies and others helped to bring the bodies.”
Unwell when released
Another Uyghur man said authorities detained one of his relatives at work.
“His head was beaten up so badly—he’s not functioning normally now. He was supposed to receive free medical care in a psychiatric hospital. He was also being released with his older sister’s sponsorship. Those who are let go aren’t well when they get out.”
An ethnic affairs official in Urumqi, contacted by telephone, said every neighborhood affairs committee has appointed a task force to handle the remains of those who die in custody after they were detained over suspected links to the July 5, 2009 clashes.
Another Chinese official said police and Public Security Bureau officials are now authorized to conduct burials, after which families may hold Muslim funerals if they promise to avoid spreading news of the death.
One Uyghur man identified as Esetjan, 26, was detained on July 5, 2009, the day the clashes erupted.
On April 18, 2010, authorities turned over his body to his family, saying he had suffered a heart attack, one source said.
“Without any interrogation, without a charge, he was being kept there, and on April 18 they returned his body with a sponsor from the family signing the papers and agreeing to keep it quiet and accepting the conditions of not speaking out about his death,” the source said.
“The reason given to the family was that he had a heart attack. I attended his religious burial ceremony myself. If no one acts as a sponsor for the body, then the body is taken to the crematory, where it is burned.”
The man, who also declined to be identified, also said several men in his neighborhood had died within a week of being released from custody.
“They died one by one. These men [bore] no evidence of being beaten. There were no marks of any kind on their bodies. They walked like normal human beings but slowly, and they didn’t say much. If one was very outspoken and outgoing before, after being arrested and being released, they became very quiet, not saying much and speaking slowly,” he said.
Original reporting by Gülchehre Keyim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated from the Uyghur by Rushan Abbas. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.