The family of a prominent Uyghur religious leader whose prison sentence had been arbitrarily extended several times has called on the international community to press the Chinese authorities to release him, saying his health is in serious jeopardy after a 270-day hunger strike.
Kerem Abduweli, 57, a Muslim leader in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, looked frail and weak after ending his marathon fast, according to his mother who last saw him in June.
“His health condition was terrible and he looked like he was dying. I asked [the prison officials] to let him come home and stay with me, just until his health recovered, but they refused,” 78-year-old Meremnisa Abduweli told RFA’s Uyghur service.
His brother Memtimin Abduweli, who spoke with RFA from Sweden, said family members told him Kerem Abduweli “looked like a skeleton with skin hanging on it and he was in a wheelchair,” after they met with him two months ago.
Another brother, Ablimit Abduweli, said his mother pleaded for the support of the international community and of Uyghur organizations in exile abroad to take actions to seek his freedom.
Kerem Abdulweli was arrested for “acts of separatism” on Nov. 17, 1990 and found guilty by trial and sentenced eight months later to 12 years in jail—retroactive to the time of his arrest. He was scheduled to be released from a prison in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi on Nov. 16, 2002.
But Chinese authorities have extended his sentence four times—for three years each time—citing dangers that he might stir public unrest upon his release. Based on the last extension imposed in November 2011, he is due for release in 2014.
According to his family, officials only provided verbal notice of Kerem Abduweli’s sentence extensions, except for the most recent one which was communicated in written form.
In protest against the extended punishments, he began a hunger strike on Sept. 24 last year which ended some nine months later in June, family members said.
During the hunger strike, Kerem Abduweli’s family members were summoned to the jail on four occasions in an attempt to convince him to abandon his protest. His family believes that he was eventually force fed by prison officials intravenously.
The longest recorded hunger strike ended in 1973 after 385 days when Briton Dennis Galer Goodwin protested his innocence of a rape charge in a prison in England. Goodwin was fed orally, through a tube.
Meremnisa Abduweli said she had visited him on the 40th day of his hunger strike in November last year and that he couldn’t say much because he met with her in front of four or five prison officials. However, he didn’t seem afraid of the officials either, she said.
“I told him that his brother wanted to take the matter to court, but he told me that it would be useless and said we should not waste our time,” she said in an interview earlier this month.
“I told him to stop fasting and eat, but he refused.”
Meremnisa Abduweli said she next saw her son only in April this year, when she was summoned by prison officials to visit him. She was shown a letter by police which stated that he had been fasting for 198 days at that time.
“I am almost certain that [the Chinese officials] only invited me to visit my son hoping that I could convince him to eat again,” she said.
Ablimit Abduweli, 44, and who lives in Kucha, in western Xinjiang’s Aqsu prefecture, said that before the hunger strike, he had only been able to visit his brother once or twice a year.
Since Kerem Abduweli was hospitalized after the hunger strike, he said, he had visited him every two months. His last visit to the prison hospital was in June.
“He was able to talk but he was barely surviving. He couldn’t hear in one ear,” Ablimit Abduweli said.
Memtimin Abduweli, 48, confirmed that his brother had gone months without food, according to information relayed to him by his family members.
“He stopped eating on Sept. 24 last year and only ate for the first time in June of this year, so he didn’t eat for about nine months,” the Sweden-based Memtimin Abduweli said.
“[The police] showed the family a document back in April stating that he hadn’t eaten for 198 days. They didn’t give them the document; they only let them read it and then took it back,” he said.
End of Strike
On June 26, Kerem Abduweli ended his 270-day hunger strike, although it was unclear whether he was forced to do so or had done so voluntarily. His family members said they believe that prison staff had been force feeding him intravenously.
Reports suggest that Chinese officials have used forced feeding tactics to keep prisoners on hunger strikes alive.
“Kerem had been fasting all along and the police would always advise the family to convince him to eat,” Memtimin Abduweli said.
“The only reason he is still alive is because [the Chinese officials and prison staff] are forcefully using IVs [intravenous feeding] on him to keep him alive,” he said.
“He is now very thin and his health is in terrible condition. He even began saying his last words to the family.”
Kerem Abduweli’s mother also spoke about meeting with her son in the prison hospital after he ended his hunger strike, saying “I hope to see him one day if he gets better, otherwise he will die in prison and there is nothing I can do about it."
“Thankfully, I have yet to hear the news of his death,” she said.
“All I ask is for my son to be released from prison.”
“All we ask is for him to come home. My mother is getting old and she has suffered too much because of Kerem’s fate,” Ablimit Abduweli said.
“She needs to be able to spend the remainder of her years with her son.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.