A middle-aged Uyghur businessman has died under mysterious circumstances while in detention at a political “re-education camp” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to local officials.
A post recently shared within the Uyghur exile community on social media indicated that Weli Memet, a healthy 55-year-old, died in late December last year while held at a “re-education camp or prison” in his home city of Atush (in Chinese, Atushi), in the XUAR’s Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture.
Since April 2017, authorities have detained up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of re-education camps throughout the XUAR.
According to the post, which was made by an anonymous source claiming to be a fellow businessman from Atush, Memet was “martyred” in detention, and his family was informed about his death on Dec. 27 or 28, while “100 to 200 armed police officers encircled the neighbourhood to contain any emotional disturbance.”
It said that Memet’s body was never turned over to his family, possibly because he “suffered severe torture and was cremated afterwards” or “his internal organs were harvested for transplants,” and his relatives were prevented from holding a prayer service in the absence of performing funerary rights for his remains.
The author of the post did not say what Memet had been accused of that led to his detention, nor did he provide any evidence for the claims about why authorities refused to hand Memet’s body over to his family.
RFA’s Uyghur Service called two different police stations in Atush, but officers who answered the phones there said they were unaware of Memet’s case.
When asked what jurisdiction the case of Memet “who died in a re-education camp last month” fell under, an officer at the Atush city police department told RFA that it had been handled by “the Azaq district police station,” but an officer at the Azaq station hung up the phone when asked for comment.
The head of Memet’s home district of Azghan in Atush acknowledged that Memet had grown up in the area and was the son of a former head of the district.
RFA also contacted two ruling Communist Party cadres from Azghan, one of whom said he believed Memet was taken to a re-education camp because he “sent his children for religious studies” with a local cleric around a decade earlier.
The other cadre told RFA Memet was sent to a camp around Nov. 16, and that he had seen him there.
The second cadre said Weli Memet was “once strong and healthy,” but had become “thin and pale” before he died, due to poor food and conditions at the camp.
“Five or six people have already died” at local camps, he added, without providing further details.
Uyghur sources in exile who were familiar with Memet told RFA that he was “a well-respected man who had a strong sense of responsibility for the community” and would always go out of his way to resolve an unjust situation, suggesting that his outspoken nature may have made him a target of authorities at the camp.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, recently called the situation in the XUAR "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.