Prominent Uyghur Poet and Author Confirmed to Have Died While Imprisoned

Reports of the death come as details emerge on the sentence length of another detained poet.
Prominent Uyghur Poet and Author Confirmed to Have Died While Imprisoned Haji Mirzahid Kerimi in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener

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 died while serving an 11-year jail term, according to official sources.

At least 14 staff members of Kashgar Publishing House in the XUAR’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city have been arrested since 2017, including Haji Mirzahid Kerimi, an 82-year-old former editor for the company and celebrated poet. The renowned writer had routinely risked his freedom by penning the most comprehensive histories of figures who helped to establish a Uyghur kingdom in Central Asia between the 8th and 11th centuries.

Kerimi was sentenced to 11 years in prison, despite a serious health condition, because he wrote five books that were later blacklisted by the government and had delivered a “problematic” speech during an award ceremony for his poetry, sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service in late 2018.

Reports that Kerimi had died on Jan. 9, 2021 recently began circulating on Uyghur-language social media and RFA was able to confirm that he passed away in prison while serving his latest term.

An officer at the Id Kah Police Station in Kashgar refused to discuss whether Kerimi had died or whether he had overseen security at his funeral, referring further questions to the local Public Security Bureau (PSB).

But two police officers from Kashgar, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal, said that the author and poet had expired recently.

“We heard word that he died—we don’t know the details, though,” one officer said.

“They brought his body from the hospital,” he added, noting that it had first been brought to the hospital from the prison where Kerimi was being held.

A second officer said that a co-worker had told him Kerimi was taken to the hospital from the prison after an incident in which the former editor “jumped and fell.”

“They never said anything about [exactly] what had happened,” he said.

“They took him [to the hospital] for treatment and I heard that he passed away while they were treating him.”

Uyghur students study at a bilingual middle school in Hotan, Xinjiang, in a file photo. AFP

Outspoken critic

The arrest of Kerimi and his colleagues are part of a “sweeping campaign” in the XUAR since the beginning of 2017 to censor literature based on political content, with sensitive books being categorized as “dangerous” or “problematic,” and anyone deemed responsible for publishing them targeted for detention.

Kerimi was an outspoken critic, and even as the political situation in Kashgar deteriorated rapidly in recent years, he did not shy away from risk or from sharing his opinions publicly. On June 17, 2017, he told RFA that Han police in the city had recently raided his home, confiscating a total of five historical novels he had written.

The authorities were apparently “uncomfortable” about phrases and passages in the books that had to do with religion. Kerimi reported to RFA that he told the police in 2017 about having once served 13 years of a 20-year jail sentence and asked them to avoid detaining him on suspicion alone, as the authorities had decades earlier. He claimed to have spent more than 30 years in prison or under house arrest, beginning when he was around 20 years old.

He said that in addition to the five historical novels, the authorities also confiscated handwritten materials, including drafts of some of his unpublished works.

A year later, in 2018, a political law cadre in Kashgar confirmed to RFA that 30 percent of current and retired employees of the Kashgar Uyghur Publishing House were in detention. The cadre mentioned Kerimi as one of the earliest individuals from the publisher to be detained and sentenced, and he told a reporter from RFA that the author had received a sentence of 11 years.

At the time, the employee told RFA that it was not only the author’s books that caused him to run afoul of the authorities. He was reportedly detained in part because of a speech he delivered at a ceremony held in his honor, where he was gifted a ceremonial robe in recognition of his literary work.

In his 2017 interview with RFA, Kerimi said he suspected that some of his readers who had been to his home to visit him might have also been part of the reason he was taken away by authorities for questioning at the time.

Uyghurs throughout the diaspora have been sharing their grief over Kerimi’s death on social media in recent weeks. One anonymous author even wrote a dirge in his memory, lamenting the tragedy of a great life cut short.

Decades-long sentence

Reports of Kerimi’s death came days after RFA was able to confirm the detention of Qasim Sidiq, a well-known Uyghur poet and literature teacher who went missing in the XUAR nearly four years ago, based on information provided by an employee at his local education bureau.

Sidiq, a resident of Ghulja (Yining)—the seat of Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture and the XUAR’s third largest city—was detained by authorities in March 2017, after which he disappeared.

The prolific author and amateur physicist, who previously worked for the Ghulja Bureau of Education and taught at the city’s Dadamtu Intermediate School, disappeared around the same time that authorities launched a campaign of mass extralegal incarceration in the XUAR that has since seen up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held in a vast network of internment camps in the region.

According to the source, who declined to be named, song lyrics and poems composed by Sidiq as many as 15 years ago had been used as “evidence” for charges against him of “inciting ethnic hatred,” adding that they fear the teacher may have been sent to one of the region’s camps.

It was not immediately clear whether Sidiq has been in detention since his arrest in March 2017. RFA was unable to locate any sign he went through a judicial process that would land him in prison instead of an extralegal internment camp.

However, following the report, a man claiming to be a close personal friend of the poet and teacher reached out to RFA to share more information about the case.

According to the individual, who lives outside China and requested anonymity, authorities determined that there were “problems” with poems Sidiq had written, and he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

While an officer who answered the phone at Ghulja’s Dadamtu Police Station told RFA that Sidiq was sentenced in 2018, he was unable to confirm how long the poet was sentenced or where he is being held.

Sidiq’s detention fits a larger pattern of authorities in the XUAR targeting Uyghur intellectuals and other prominent members of the ethnic group as part of what observers have called a form of “cultural genocide.”

Since the start of the internment drive in 2017, RFA has reported on dozens of leading figures in Uyghur society who have gone missing and whose names have disappeared from the scholarly events, websites, and literature where their work had previously been a fixture.

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


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