Uyghur poet imprisoned on separatism charges in China’s Xinjiang

Gulnisa Emin’s poems describe the despair the Uyghurs face under the Chinese crackdown.
By Shohret Hoshur
Watchtowers sit atop a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, May 31, 2019.

A Uyghur poet who wrote a series of poems that movingly described the lives of Uyghurs under Chinese rule is serving more than 17 years in prison on separatism charges, RFA has confirmed.

Gulnisa Emin from Chira (in Chinese, Cele) county in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is known for a series of poems titled “One Thousand and One Nights,” which she began writing and releasing online as audiocasts under the pseudonym Gulhan in 2015.

On the 345th night she issued a poem, Gulnisa Emin was suddenly cut off from the internet. Rumors circulated in the Uyghur community that she had been sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence, according to Abduweli Ayup, a Norway-based activist and linguist who documents missing and imprisoned Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

“In May 2019 during a protest I saw the picture of the poet who used the pseudonym of Gulhan, and couldn’t believe my eyes,” Abduweli said during one of his programs on RFA’s Uyghur Service “I talked to the protester holding her picture and found out the truth that our beloved poet, Gulnisa Emin, had been detained in December 2018.”

A Uyghur from Chira who now lives in exile and has knowledge of the situation told RFA that Gulnisa was sentenced to 17-and-half years in Mush Prison because Chinese authorities said her poetry spread thoughts of “separatism.”

Gulnisa, 45, was arbitrarily detained and interrogated several times from 2014 when Chinese authorities began an “antiterrorism” campaign until her final arrest in 2018, said the source, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.

While she was in detention, Gulnisa had witnessed the brutal policies authorities used under the guise of “enforcing the law,” the source said. Close friends were “disappeared” and court convictions led to mass executions, the source said.

When RFA contacted officials at Chira county court and Chira county high school, where Gulnisa had worked, most said they could not comment on the matter. But one senior court official said Gulnisa was one of nearly three dozen county teachers arrested and sentenced in recent years.

“Seventeen years and six months,” he said when asked about the length of Gulnisa’s sentence.

A Chinese government official in Chira told RFA that Gulnisa had been detained once in 2017, held in an internment camp for a year in 2018, and was sentenced to prison in 2019.

The official could not say which of Gulnisa’s poems got her arrested, what crime Gulnisa had been charged with, or whether she had a trial. But he did confirm that she is serving her sentence in Mush Women’s prison in Tokkuzak (Toukezhake) township in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture.

Chinese authorities have targeted and arrested numerous Uyghur businessmen, intellectuals, and cultural and religious figures in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for years as part of a campaign to monitor, control and assimilate members of the minority group, purportedly to prevent religious extremism and terrorist activities.

Many of them have been among the 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities believed to be held in a network of detention camps in Xinjiang since 2017. Beijing has said that the camps are vocational training centers and has denied widespread and documented allegations that it has mistreated Muslims living in Xinjiang.

Gulnisa was a member of writers’ associations in Chira county and Hotan prefecture. Some of her poems became song lyrics, and others were translated into Chinese and Japanese. She began writing her “One Thousand and One Nights” series on Dec. 4, 2015, and issued her last poem on March 28, 2018, according to Abduweli Ayup, the Norway-based activist.

In one poem, Gulnisa seems to predict her future incarceration:

Maybe inside the prison walls I am
Waiting for my name to be called from the list
Maybe, maybe a lot more
Will happen suddenly or very slowly.

After those moments
About one uncovered thing
Hiding, forgetting my aroused headache
Will be waiting for my name’s turn on the last list.

In a poem from “One Thousand and One Nights,” Gulnisa wrote of her desire to escape from an environment of fear:

She looks for space while living
On a rock that doesn’t crack like herself
In a salty tear that cannot be shed
To breathe for a second
To light like a match even
In the last limits of tolerance.

Gulnisa also wrote about her dream for a bright future for Uyghurs in Xinjiang in this poem:

The dawns you are in will rise again
The dawns you are in will rise again
The dawns you are in will rise again,
Filling my arms with you,
Putting dew on the lashes
Of the crescent that has gone not giving up.

Will stretch the roads wide,
To the bottom of your doorsteps.
Will bring your longing,
The dove cooing at your window.
Perfume of the branches,
Will drizzle to my imagination.

Yearning to you as clear as moonlight,
Passed my door a thousand times.
Spreading out their leaves,
Lies the dreams like red flowers.

Like your lip kissing my burning lip,
The dawns you are in will rise again.

Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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