A young Uyghur woman who worked as the deputy director of a tourist agency in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has died while being questioned in official custody, according to a recording of her mother that was secreted out of the country by members of the Uyghur exile community.
Aytursun Eli, 35, had studied tourism and Japanese before accepting a position at the Hua An Tourism Company in the XUAR’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city and being promoted to deputy director, her mother, Patigul Yasin, said in a purported recording of an interview with the official Autonomous Regional Women’s Federation that was obtained by Washington-based International Uyghur Human Rights & Democracy Foundation (IUHRDF).
Authorities in the region had targeted the young woman after she returned from a work trip to Dubai, a country blacklisted by authorities for travel by Uyghurs due to the perceived threat of religious extremism, her mother said.
“It was on June 4, 2018, when she was called … to go to the police station,” Yasin explains in the recording, which was only recently smuggled out of the XUAR by a “Uyghur exile through various channels” before being passed to the Washington-based World Uyghur Congress, and published on IUHRDF’s website.
“We didn’t really pay much attention to it at the time … But on June 9, at around 11:00 a.m., two men came to our home.”
Yasin said the men asked her and her husband, Eli Ghopur, about what Eli did for a living and whether she ever showed signs of being medically unfit.
“If my daughter was unwell, how could she manage to help carry elderly tourists’ luggage, and assist them in climbing mountains and visiting various places,” Yasin said she told the men.
When she inquired whether Eli had fallen ill, the men told her, “Yes, a little bit,” and asked whether she would like to see her daughter.
“We were taken to the Yuandong Hospital [in Kashgar], but when they saw my husband’s face and the state that he was in, they told him to sit down and not to go in, and took me inside on my own,” she said.
Yasin said that on arriving at the hospital, several people who she believed were plainclothes officers surrounded her and told her “not to shout out or cry.”
“Two men grabbed me by my arms and dragged me into the hospital … where I was made to sit at [a desk] with people standing on either side of me,” she said.
“A man arrived to sit opposite me and said, ‘We are going open up your daughter’s body … to carry out an autopsy. Should we proceed?’”
“I said, ‘Why would you do that? Did you kill her [in custody] and now you want to open her up here at the hospital?’”
According to Yasin, the two men grabbed her again and informed her that if she refrained from crying, they would allow her to receive Eli’s body at her home before they buried her.
“They dragged me into a room where my daughter’s body was—she was lying there like a beautiful statue and I began to caress her while screaming, ‘My child,’” she said.
“At that point, they pulled my hands very roughly away from her face, dragging me out of the room. I only had a chance to touch my daughter’s face, and was unable to see any other parts of her body.”
Yasin said the authorities claimed her daughter had a medical condition, and because she was so weak, she was “unable to cope with being questioned.”
But she rejected their explanation, saying that Eli would have been unable to perform her duties and receive promotions with the tourist agency if she was unwell.
“They forcibly took my hand and made me sign some documents,” she said, adding that she was also made to provide fingerprints before receiving a death certificate from the hospital.
Despite Eli’s achievements in her studies, the certificate said that she was a “farmer” who “had never been to school,” and claimed she suffered from four different heart conditions, including arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy, Yasin said.
Eli’s body was brought to her home, but her parents were not allowed to see her, Yasin said, and she was taken away for burial about an hour later.
“During that time, I asked to see her, but they fiercely refused my pleas,” she said.
“They washed her and took her away for burial while we were locked up in a room and prevented from entering the courtyard. The cadres and police controlled everything. I learned later that they didn’t allow people to enter the house ... They only allowed three or four people to attend the burial, while the rest were officials.”
Yasin said Eli’s colleagues at the tourist agency asked authorities why she had been arrested, but were told to “mind their own business,” lest they end up in an internment camp, where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
While Eli had been told she would have to enter an internment camp, authorities never confirmed whether she had died while being questioned in a camp or in custody at a local police station.
Police handed Yasin 49,000 yuan (U.S. $7,125) following the burial, which she said included Eli’s pension contributions and a “death payment.”
After obtaining a copy of Yasin’s recording, RFA’s Uyghur Service contacted the Autonomous Regional Women’s Federation to confirm Eli’s death, but was told by staff members that they had no knowledge of the case.
The staff members told RFA that they had not conducted any interviews related to the death of a young woman who worked with a tourist agency, despite being told of the purported recording.
When asked whether Eli had worked for Hua An Tourist Company, a representative of the firm confirmed that she had and told RFA that she died “around this time last year.”
A second staff member at the tourist agency said they knew Eli had passed away, but were unable to speak to the state of her health or the circumstances under which she died.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps, China has tried to change the discussion, describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
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.
In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, cited “massive human rights violations in Xinjiang where over a million people are being held in a humanitarian crisis that is on the scale of what took place in the 1930s.”
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently told RFA in an interview that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.
The U.S. Congress has also joined in efforts to halt the incarcerations, debating legislation that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network, and the security threats posed by the crackdown.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.