Niece of Prominent Uyghur Scholar Confirmed to Have Died in Xinjiang Internment Camp

Mihray Erkin was forced to return to the region in 2019 and died in detention the following year.
2021-05-25
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Niece of Prominent Uyghur Scholar Confirmed to Have Died in Xinjiang Internment Camp Abduweli Ayup (R) with his wife and daughter while studying in the U.S., in a file photo.
Photo courtesy of a family member

The niece of prominent Uyghur scholar and linguist-in-exile Abduweli Ayup has been confirmed to have died while being investigated by state security police in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) Prefecture in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to official sources.

Mihray Erkin, a graduate of Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University with a degree in plant biotechnology who had gone on to complete a related master’s degree in Tokyo University before becoming a researcher at Japan’s Nara Institute of Science and Technology, returned to the XUAR in August 2019 after authorities in Kashgar put her parents under pressure to call her home.

In late 2020, RFA’s Uyghur Service reported that Erkin was believed to have died while in detention in one of the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities in the region are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since early 2017. The report could not be independently confirmed at the time.

After denying the camps' existence initially, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the facilities as residential training centers that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.

But reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate 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. 

Former detainees have also described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.

Parliaments in Canada, The Netherlands, the U.K. and Lithuania, and the U.S. State Department, have described China's actions in the region as "genocide," while the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says they constitute crimes against humanity.

Family threatened

While few details of Erkin’s status were available when RFA learned of her reported death last year, a source from her hometown of Toqquzaq (Tuokezhake), in Kashgar’s Kona Sheher (Shufu) county, recently confirmed the reports and said police had since made threats to her family.

“Mihray died in November 2020 while in detention and after she died, authorities told the family members to remain silent about it,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

“Reports of her death came out on Dec. 20—the same day she was buried while under surveillance by local police. Three family members participated the burial.”

According to the source, the day after Erkin’s burial, police told family members that if they spoke out about the death, they would be “imprisoned” for “disclosing state secrets” and “defaming the police.”

The source said that police in charge of Erkin’s case had attributed her death to “a disease” that her family had “hidden” from them and added a falsified medical record to the official report as proof, which he said he had seen a copy of.

He said police forced family members to record a video testimony confirming that Erkin suffered from a ‘disease’ and had ‘died at home,’ although the video was never released for reasons that remain unknown.

The source said Erkin had died while being detained and investigated by members of the Kashgar Public Security Bureau at the Kashgar Yanbulak Detention Center, suggesting that her death may have been the result of interrogation.

RFA spoke with a national security officer in Toqquzaq who said that while he was not among the people who handled Erkin’s case, his colleagues told him she had died in the Yanbulak Detention Center. He said he was unaware of the exact date of her death.

Another official confirmed that she had been detained “for some time” at the detention center before her death.

“She was being held in Yanbulak … in Doletbagh, within Kashgar city,” he said.

When asked whether Erkin had been detained and interrogated at Yanbulak, the official told RFA, “Yes, she was,” but was unable to provide the date of her death.

Mihray Erkin in an undated photo.
Mihray Erkin in an undated photo.
Detention as leverage

Erkin’s detention is seen by members of the Uyghur diaspora as part of a bid by China’s government to exert leverage over her uncle, Abduweli Ayup, who has sought to protect the Uyghur language through grassroots initiatives in response to policies of cultural assimilation in the XUAR, and who relocated to Norway after fleeing the region in August 2015.

Ayup, who had sought to set up “mother tongue-based” schools to promote the Uyghur language, was ordered jailed 18 months for “illegal fundraising” in August 2014 by the Tengritagh (in Chinese, Tianshan) district court in the XUAR capital Urumqi after being detained for a year, but was released three months later when his partners appealed their cases.

Uyghurs in exile say that the charges against Ayup and his partners were politically motivated, after the U.S.-educated linguist’s essays and lectures on maintaining the Uyghur language in schools drew widespread support in China’s Uyghur community.

A few months prior to her return to the XUAR, Erkin had repeatedly urged her uncle to cease his activism. In response, Ayup suggested that the request was “out of character” for his niece and her upbringing, and said it was likely she made it as a result of Chinese police pressure on family members, including Erkin’s mother.

“I think they forced her mother to say that, because she was the only one from my family outside of the XUAR, so the authority kept pressuring her through her mother,” Ayup told RFA. “Mihray was under a lot of pressure at that time.”

‘Roses will mark my grave’

RFA’s source from Toqquzaq said that Erkin had conveyed the reasons for her return to the XUAR to a friend via text message at the Tokyo airport shortly before her departure, saying that she was morally bound to repay her debt to her parents by staying by their side.

But the source suggested that the reasons she gave were in part to comfort herself while in a state of hesitation and panic.

The same message said that if she were to die, “a bouquet of roses will mark my grave,” which the source took to mean that she knew her life was at risk and feared a death without proper burial.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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