A prominent Uyghur Islamic scholar has died in Chinese police custody, some 40 days after he was detained in the Xinjiang regional capital Urumqi, overseas Uyghur organizations said on Monday.
Muhammad Salih Hajim, 82, died “in custody,” about 40 days after he, his daughter and other relatives were detained, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said in a brief statement.
“The exact circumstances of his death are unknown, but he was taken into custody approximately 40 days ago, along with his daughter and other relatives,” said the UHRP.
“UHRP calls on the Chinese government to reveal under what conditions he was being kept, and to release his relatives if they are not being charged with any crime,” said the statement, which also called for international pressure on China to release thousands of Uyghurs detained in re-education camps.
The fate of Salih's daughter and the other relatives detained with him is unclear.
“We have heard of his death but we are not sure when he died,” police officer at Urumqi Ghalibiyet Police Station told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
Spokesman Dilxat Raxit of the World Uyghur Congress hailed Salih as “one of the most respected and influential Uyghur religious scholars” and noted his reputation as the first scholar to translate the Quran into Uyghur.
“We believe the Chinese government is covering up his death to prevent any potential unrest,” said Raxit, who also expressed concern that authorities would refuse to hand over Salih’s body to his family, fearing it would spark unrest.
“The fact that China dares to murder such renowned Uyghur religious leaders indicates how brutal Chen Quanguo is waging a campaign targeting all Uyghurs in East Turkestan,” he added, referring to the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang.
UHRP Director Omer Kanat called Salih’s death “a blow to the Uyghur community, given his respected status as a religious leader and scholar.”
“Imprisoning an elderly man without charge demonstrates the lengths to which the Chinese authorities are going in their re-education campaign. Not even individuals who were government-approved members of the religious establishment are being spared,” added Kanat.
The UHRP said it was unknown whether Salih was held in a normal prison or one of the re-education camps Chen has opened, where thousands of Uyghurs are being detained in harsh conditions and many report overcrowding.
“Chen turned the region into an open air concentration camps for the entire Uyghur population,” said the WUC’s Raxit.
Since April last year, ethnic Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Since Xinjiang party chief Chen was appointed to his post in August 2016, he has initiated unprecedented repressive measures against the Uyghur people and ideological purges against so-called “two-faced” Uyghur officials—a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty.”
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by by Shohret Hoshur and Alim Seytoff for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytof. Written in English by Paul Eckert.