The oldest of more than a dozen staff members arrested after their Uyghur-run publishing house in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) released “problematic” books has been sentenced to 11 years in prison, despite a serious health condition, according to sources.
At least 14 staff members of Kashgar Publishing House in the XUAR’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city have been arrested since last year, a source with ties to the region recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In addition to Kashgar Publishing House’s current deputy editor-in-chief, a 30-year veteran editor, and two former editors-in-chief, the source said that 80-year-old Haji Mirzahid Kerimi, a former editor for the company and celebrated poet, was sentenced to 11 years in prison because he wrote five books that were later blacklisted by the government and delivered a “problematic” speech during an award ceremony for his poetry.
The arrests are part of a “sweeping campaign” in the XUAR since the beginning of 2017 to censor literature based on political content, the source said, with sensitive books being categorized as “dangerous” or “problematic,” and anyone deemed responsible for publishing them targeted for detention.
An officer at Kashgar’s Naisheng district police department told RFA he was aware that Kerimi had been found guilty, but said his case “doesn’t come under our jurisdiction” and was unsure of the length of his sentence.
The officer, who did not provide his name, would not specify whether Kerimi was tried because of the books he published or the speech he made at a “Gown Awards” ceremony honoring his contribution to poetry in 2015.
“If you contact the officers in charge of his case from the Public Security Bureau (PSB), they can provide you with answers,” said the officer.
A staff member at the PSB’s local Law Enforcement Department told RFA that Kerimi’s novels focused on the golden era of Uyghur history, putting them atop a list of suspicious books to be investigated by authorities in the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
“There is a retired writer [among the 14 arrested] named Haji Mirzahid Kerimi … and his case is the most serious one,” the staff member said, adding that he had already been sentenced.
“I heard that what he said at his Gown Awards ceremony was deemed to be ‘problematic,’ which led to his arrest. Also all the books he wrote were seen as ‘problematic’ under the present guidelines.”
The staff member confirmed that Kerimi had been sentenced to 11 years in prison, but “due to his ill health, he is recovering at home under supervision [by authorities].”
“He has been in poor health and confined to a wheelchair for some time,” he said.
According to sources, Kerimi’s poem entitled “A Baby in a Box” had a significant impact on Uyghur society in 1959, leading authorities to label him a “separatist” and imprison him for 13 years. Upon his release in 1972, he was subjected to constant surveillance for an additional seven years.
Kerimi had worked as a teacher at the Kashgar Uyghur Middle School from 1981 to 1983, and as an editor at Kashgar Publishing House from 1983 until he retired in 2003.
Earlier this month, sources told RFA that the 14 arrested Kashgar Publishing House staff members include Ablajan Siyit, the publisher’s current deputy editor-in-chief, Osman Zunun, a former editor-in-chief who retired 10 years ago, and Abliz Omer, another former editor-in-chief who retired 20 years earlier, adding that they were detained on Oct. 15, “in the beginning of the year,” and “last year,” respectively.
Sources recently told RFA that 60-year-old Memetjan Abliz Boriyar, who worked as a manager and editor at the company since 1987, was taken into custody in early October because he had approved the release of more than 100 books that were later blacklisted by the government.
A staff member at the local office of the judiciary in Kashgar told RFA that more than 600 books issued by Kashgar Publishing House had been listed as “problematic,” resulting in the arrests of their authors, editors, and those who greenlit their publication.
The investigation into “problematic” books began “two years ago,” he said, adding that books can be blacklisted even if they contain only one sentence that is “now restricted in use,” regardless of whether it was at the time of publishing.
Several prominent Uyghur intellectuals have gone missing from the XUAR in recent months and are believed detained in re-education camps, and sources in the exile community have said the trend shows that Chinese authorities are “committing cultural genocide by attempting to eliminate the best and brightest Uyghur minds.”
RFA has confirmed the arrests of Qurban Mahmut, the editor-in-chief of the Xinjiang Cultural Journal; Abdurahman Ebey, the head of the Xinjiang People’s Publication House; and the deputy editor-in-chief and three Uyghur directors of the Xinjiang Daily newspaper.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.