An ethnic Uyghur woman jailed for “attempting to flee the country” has died due to complications from a medical condition that was left untreated while in detention, according to her husband, who said that authorities illegally detained his wife after she applied for a passport.
Hayrigul, 42, was arrested in January in the municipality of Tianjin where she had lived since relocating from Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture, in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, a decade earlier, her husband Zhang Long recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
Zhang, who is an ethnic Hui Muslim, said his wife first came under the scrutiny of authorities in 2015 after the two of them traveled to her home village of Boz’eriq in Maralbeshi (Bachu) county’s Siriqbuya (Selibuya) township to apply for a passport from the county government—a standard procedure amid tighter restrictions facing Uyghurs who hope to travel abroad.
“We went to her hometown to apply for a passport for her … [and] after applying we returned to Tianjin,” he said.
“At the end of December 2015, I received a phone call from the Maralbeshi county police station saying that the passport was being processed and would be ready soon, but requesting that we go to our nearest police station [in Tianjin] for her fingerprints to be taken.”
Hayrigul had her photograph, fingerprints, and blood samples taken by police—also a routine collection of data that is digitized and stored on a chip in Chinese biometric passports—and Zhang sent the information to the station in Maralbeshi for processing.
“On Jan. 19, 2016, my wife was suddenly arrested in Tianjin,” Zhang said, adding that he later learned that several of her family members had also been detained, including her brother Emet Omer, who ran a restaurant in neighboring Hebei province’s Cangzhou city and was taken into custody two weeks earlier.
He said many Uyghurs who sell kebabs in Tianjin had recently been accused of planning to leave the country illegally and that authorities “claimed my wife helped them by interpreting for them over the telephone.”
“She was just a housewife, but she was arrested for the same reason as her brother was accused—attempting to flee overseas,” he added.
According to Zhang, “many Uyghurs” were arrested around the same time as Hayrigul, though most were later released.
“I believe that around four people were punished,” he said.
Zhang noted that his wife’s home township was the site of a violent incident in November 2013, when Chinese authorities gunned down nine Uyghur youths who attacked a police station and bludgeoned to death two auxiliary policemen, as well as one on April 21 of the same year, when 21 people were killed in clashes between Uyghurs and security forces.
But he and Hayrigul had moved with her daughter from her first marriage to Tianjin shortly after their wedding in 2007, while Hayrigul’s mother, one of her sisters, and her brother had joined them soon after, Zhang said, adding that the family had no link to the incidents that took place six years later.
Hayrigul, who at the time of her arrest suffered from severe stomach pains, was transferred to a detention facility in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi three days later.
Within weeks, Hayrigul’s condition had worsened, and on Feb. 18 an official with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau told Zhang to pick up his wife and bring her home for medical treatment, without specifying what was wrong with her.
The People's Hospital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region soon diagnosed Hayrigul with stomach cancer and, after six months of treatment, she succumbed to the disease. Her body was sent to Tianjin, where she was buried.
Zhang said that he has since petitioned the Tianjin People’s Court, the Intermediate People’s Court, and the Supreme People’s Court in the capital Beijing, over what he called the illegal detention of his wife and neglect during her incarceration that led to her death, but has yet to receive a response.
Telephone calls to Xinjiang’s head office of the Criminal Investigation Department and the Shi Cheng police substation in Tianjin—the couple’s local station—went unanswered this week. An officer on duty at the Seriqbuya police station hung up the phone when an RFA reporter requested information about Hayrigul’s case.
Ilshat Hassan, the president of Washington-based exile group Uyghur American Association (UAA), called Hayrigul’s case a “real illustration of how Uyghurs are victimized” under a December 2015 anti-terrorism law that bans the dissemination of images or information regarding “terrorist” activities and authorizes operations by security forces beyond China's borders.
“In Chinese law there are too many vague concepts—for example, ‘terror’ and ‘combating terror’ were never clearly defined under the anti-terrorism law,” he said.
“It is so broad that the normal practice of religion can be defined as terrorism, so any Muslim can become a target. We can see this from the tragic fate of Hayrigul.”
Until China’s government abandons such laws and establishes an “independent judicial system,” he said, cases such as Hayrigul’s will continue to occur.
“The vagueness of the law causes the illegality of the law—in this case, we can see that it led to illegal entrapment,” Hassan said.
“Different people interpret the law in different ways and use it to their advantage,” he added.
“In Hayrigul’s case, the Chinese government used this law against her simply because she was Uyghur. Therefore she was considered to be a threat and was arrested. In the end, to avoid letting it happen in prison, she was released to go home and die.”
Observers have said the anti-terrorism law could be used to target peaceful dissent and religious activities among ethnic minorities in China, particularly among the Uyghur ethnic group.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.