Xinjiang Authorities Arrest Leading Kyrgyz Historian For ‘Undecided’ Crime

Askar Yunus had published work about the golden era of his ethnic group’s history.

Police officers on duty in the vicinity of a center believed to be used for re-education in Xinjiang's Korla city, Nov. 2, 2017.

Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have arrested a leading Kyrgyz historian for an as of yet “undecided” crime after he published dozens of articles and several books examining the golden era of his ethnic group’s history, according to official sources.

Askar Yunus, a 49-year-old researcher at the History Research Department of the Academy of Social Sciences of Xinjiang, was taken into custody late last month from his home in the regional capital Urumqi, a staff member from the institution told RFA’s Uyghur Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We were informed at a meeting,” the staff member said, adding that “there are some problems with him.”

The staff member conceded that he was unsure of why Yunus was detained because his crime “hasn’t been decided yet,” without providing further information.

A staff member at the academy’s Discipline Inspection Office, who also declined to be named, confirmed that Yunus had been arrested, but said he was unsure of the details of his case and referred questions about what he had done wrong to the History Research Department.

According to biographical information found online and his colleagues, Yunus’s work over the past 26 years covered the ethnic history of the XUAR and Central Asia, with a focus on that of the Kyrgyz people.

A member of the Chinese Intellectual Foreign Affiliation Society and the Xinjiang History Association, Yunus had published more than 40 articles and several books about the Kyrgyz from the 19th century onwards, as well as relations between Kyrgyzstan and China and their impact on the region now known as the XUAR.

Exiled Uyghur poet and activist Tahir Hamut, who is currently living in the U.S., told RFA he believes authorities will accuse Askar Yunus of being a “two-faced official”—a term applied by the government to ethnic minority cadres who pay lip service to Communist Party rule, but secretly chafe against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.

“It has always been the case that those involved in carrying out research on history become vulnerable targets because of the sensitivity of the subject,” he said in a recent interview, adding that the findings of ethnic minority historians can lead to debate within society that results in their being “criminalized by the Chinese authorities.”

“The research Askar Yunus was involved in is about the Kyrgyz people’s history, as well as the [Xinjiang] Uyghur Autonomous Region’s history,” he said.

“Those who research history often intentionally or unintentionally are involved in projects that can lead to controversy for the government. Our struggle in fighting for [self-rule in] our homeland is based on historical fact. Therefore, in my opinion, the reason for the Kyrgyz historian Askar Yunus’ arrest is related to his research work.”

Intellectuals targeted

Several prominent intellectuals have gone missing from the XUAR in recent months and are believed detained in “political” re-education camps, where authorities have detained Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas throughout the region since April 2017.

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.”

While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the Uyghur chairman of Xinjiang’s provincial government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency last month that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.

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.

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.