A Uyghur chauffeur has died while detained in an internment camp in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) city, in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to local officials and a Uyghur exile group.
In July last year, Qaharjan Qawul, 41, was detained in one of the XUAR’s internment camps, where experts say up to 1.5 million people accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017, according to a recent report by the International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation (IUHRDF).
The report said that Qawul was arrested after authorities learned that more than a decade ago he had visited his mother and sister in Turkey—one of several countries Uyghurs are blacklisted from traveling to by Chinese authorities due to a perceived risk of religious extremism.
IUHRDF cited an unnamed source it said was “familiar with the case” as saying that Qawul passed out, ostensibly while being tortured, during an interrogation session in November 2018 and died after being taken to a nearby hospital.
RFA’s Uyghur Service contacted various staff members at the Aksu city Justice Bureau who refused to answer questions about Qawul’s death.
However, a Uyghur officer at the Jin Shui Road Police Station, which oversees Qawul’s neighborhood, confirmed that the chauffeur had died “in hospital,” although he did not know which one, and that his body had been returned to his family for burial.
“He was linked to people involved in political activities,” said the officer, when asked why he had been detained.
The officer’s supervisor refused to say whether Qawul had died as the result of an interrogation.
An officer at the Bazaarliq Police Station in Aksu told RFA that Qawul “was arrested by the State Security Police,” but could not provide the names of any of the officer involved.
A staff member from the Kang Wei Household Committee said the chauffeur was “taken away after it was learned that he called ‘key’ [blacklisted] families.”
“Among the three families he called, two of them were blacklisted,” he said, adding that “their family members were also arrested because there was a problem with information on their phones.”
RFA also spoke with an officer from the State Security Police who had been a schoolmate of Qawul’s that confirmed he had “died [while detained] in prison.”
Another officer with the State Security Police said he heard that Qawul “became unwell at the camp and was taken to a hospital, where he died” in November last year, but did not know which camp he was being held in at the time.
A second call to the Bazaarliq Police Station was answered by an officer who said that “there were problems with the information on [Qawul’s] phone [because he had called blacklisted families] and he was arrested for further investigation.”
When pressed further, he said that it was during the investigation into his case that authorities learned that Qawul had previously travelled to Turkey.
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.