Uyghur Exile Group Leader’s Mother Died in Xinjiang Detention Center

Officials confirm she had been held for a year after being accused of ‘religious extremism.’

Dolkun Isa at the National Press Club in Washington, March 7, 2018.

The recently deceased mother of Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, died while in detention at a “political re-education camp” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to security officials.

Last month, Isa learned from a close family friend that his mother, Ayhan Memet, died on May 17 at the age of 78, but the WUC president was unsure if she had been incarcerated in one of the many “political re-education camps” throughout the XUAR, where authorities have been detaining Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” thoughts since April 2017.

Uyghurs with relatives living abroad are frequently targeted by this campaign, and amid an information clampdown in the region, many Uyghurs in exile have difficulty learning about the circumstances of loved ones back home—a situation that is made even more vexing for those whose relatives have passed away and who are unable to honor them with Uyghur burial rites according to Muslim tradition.

While investigating Memet’s death, RFA’s Uyghur Service determined that she died while being held at a detention center in her home prefecture of Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) for exhibiting “religious extremism.”

An official from the Kelpin (Keping) county detention center confirmed to RFA that Memet had died in a detention center, but was unwilling to say which one, as the information was considered “a state secret.”

Memet did not die in his detention center, the official added.

An official from the Aksu prefectural police headquarters refused to comment, referring questions to the XUAR Public Security Bureau.

But an official from the Kelpin county bazaar police station also confirmed Memet’s death, saying Isa’s mother had passed away while at the “No. 2 detention center,” where she was held “for around a year … due to the influence of religious extremism.”

RFA was able to determine that there are at least four detention centers in Aksu city and three in Kelpin, and that both areas have “No. 2 detention centers.” It was not immediately clear which one Memet was being held in.

Isa, who has lived in exile since 1994 and last spoke with his mother more than a year ago, told RFA that he was deeply saddened to learn of the circumstances under which she died.

“I don't know how to express my sorrow over her death and my anger toward China's treatment of her,” he said.

“Killing one’s mother to retaliate against her son’s peaceful human rights activism is the most cowardly form of retaliation by any authoritarian government. I will solemnly mourn her death and continue to peacefully fight for the legitimate rights of the Uyghur people with dignity, in spite of my personal suffering and sacrifice.”

Isa also expressed concern over the well-being of his father, Isa Memet, saying he has no information about his whereabouts.

“I don't know what he is going through at the hands of the Chinese government,” he said, adding that his father “may also be in a detention camp.”

Last month, when Isa learned of his mother’s passing, he told RFA that his family had “always faced official harassment,” and that his brother had been imprisoned for two years because of his activism.

He lamented that he and his fellow Uyghurs in exile “are deprived by the Chinese government of the basic right to timely information about the death of loved ones,” adding that by cutting off communications to friends and family inside the XUAR, the authorities had created a situation in which “Uyghurs both inside and outside of the region live in an ‘information dark age.’”

Dolkun Isa's mother, Ayhan Memet, and father, Isa Memet, in an undated photo. Credit: Dolkun Isa
US support

At the time, Michael Kozak, a senior official with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback wrote a joint letter to Isa expressing their condolences for the loss of his mother and noting his “added pain from being denied the ability to organize and hold her funeral according to Uyghur burial rites and your Muslim tradition.”

“Your courage and activism unfortunately come at a heavy cost we wish you did not have to pay,” the letter said.

Brownback has recently pressed U.S. President Donald Trump to impose sanctions on Chinese leaders who he says are responsible for Beijing’s crackdown on faith groups, and has specifically called for the State Department and U.S. Treasury to freeze the assets of XUAR Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo for his repressive policies in the region.

In May, as the State Department released its 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, Brownback said China, a designated Country of Political Concern since 1999, remains “a very, very troubling country on religious freedom,” noting especially the numbers of Uyghurs now being held in “re-education camps.”

“That was a concept you thought was gone decades ago and [is being] experienced in a growing amount,” Brownback said at the time.

“That’s why we put it forward in this report for greater action to take place.”

The State Department report noted that in the XUAR, authorities restricted Uyghurs’ participation in the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan and other religious observances, and that “hundreds of thousands” of Uyghur Muslims have been forced into camps scattered across Xinjiang.

Camp network

China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.

Citing credible reports, lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said recently that as many as 500,000 to a million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, calling it ”the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, said the number “could be closer to 1.1 million, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region."

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