A Uyghur resident of Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture, in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, committed suicide after he was threatened with detention in a political re-education camp because he was unable to recite the national anthem in Chinese instead of his native Uyghur language, according to officials.
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.
While investigating social media reports of an alleged protest in Kashgar’s Yarkand (Shache) county, RFA’s Uyghur Service determined that a separate incident occurred recently in which a Uyghur named Tursun Ablet had hanged himself at his home in No. 1 village of the county’s Tomosteng township.
According to officers who answered the phone at the Tomosteng Police Station, Ablet—a man in his 40s who is the father of three children—committed suicide on Jan. 28, and was discovered by his wife, before members of the provincial Public Security Bureau arrived to investigate.
“He hanged himself with a rope,” said one officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I heard it was related to the class he was attending, and that something had affected him,” he said.
“The classes were arranged by the Family Committee for people to study the Chinese language, [Communist] party regulations, and so on. As it is the wintertime [and not farming season], it is also to prevent men from taking part in activities that affect social stability.”
A second officer at the station named “Ilham” said that a police investigation had determined that Ablet “was struggling with his studies” before his death.
“[Ablet’s wife] said that the previous evening, after returning from the training course, he complained about the lessons, saying, ‘What kind of life is this?’” Ilham said.
“She said, ‘In the morning when he left the house, I thought he had gone to the class. I went to our old house to feed the chickens and I found he had hanged himself.’”
According to Ilham, Ablet’s wife explained that he had “complained about the difficulties he faced in learning how to read and write the Chinese language, saying ‘Other people can read and write, but I cannot.’”
Mandarin Chinese and the Uyghur language—which is Turkic—differ significantly, and Uyghurs speak Chinese at varying levels of proficiency, depending on where they live, how they have been educated, and their occupations.
Ilham said it was unclear whether Ablet held particularly strong beliefs with regard to his Muslim faith, and if that had been a factor in his difficulties in the class.
“All his life he worked as a laborer—he was a very quiet man who kept to himself,” Ilham said, adding, “He looked after his family doing odd jobs daily.”
He said he believed Ablet’s suicide was motivated by “verbal harassment” and “abuse of his dignity” he endured at the class.
Statements from classmates
A third officer—who was part of an investigation unit comprised of village and township cadres, as well as police—read RFA statements taken from residents familiar with Ablet and his treatment at the training course.
A statement from Ablimit Abliz said that on the morning of Jan. 25, about 200 people aged 16 to 45 attended a training course at Bagh Hoyla Family Committee Hall, and that 17 people in the class—including Ablet—were unable to recite the national anthem when asked to stand and do so.
The head of the Family Committee, Mehmet Tursun Mahmut, told the group that if they could not learn to recite both the national anthem and the Oath of Allegiance to the Communist Party by Jan. 29, he would “send us to a re-education camp for between six months and five years.”
“On Jan. 27, 11 out of the 17 people passed the recitation of the national anthem and the Oath of Allegiance test, and the remaining six failed it,” Abliz’s statement reads.
“After class, the six people who failed were kept in the building and forced to carry out cleaning tasks,” it said, adding that Abliz was unsure what the group was told after they were finished with the work.
According to the statement, Mahmut had made a similar threat at a class at the Yengisheher Family Committee on the morning of Jan. 24, when he called attendees “stupid donkeys” and told them they would be sent to a re-education camp for up to five years if they could not recite the anthem and the oath within three days.
A second statement from Turdi Tursun confirmed that six people were forced to carry out a cleaning task after Mehmet Tursun swore at them in front of the class on Jan. 25 at Bagh Hoyla Family Committee Hall.
“He shouted, ‘Why didn’t you complete the task that I told you to do within the time allotted? You are all stupid, ignorant donkeys.’”
The officer who read the statements said investigators had not determined whether Mehmet Tursun was responsible for Ablet’s death, as they had only asked about whether abuse had taken place during the classes he attended.
“According to witnesses, Mehmet Tursun Mahmut told him that he had until the 29th to remember and recite everything,” he said, adding that he believed Ablet was frightened about the consequences of failing to do so.
He said Ablet was discovered hanging from a trellis supporting grapevines in the courtyard of his old home, and that he had used a pile of bricks to position himself.
An ambulance team pronounced Ablet dead at the scene without bringing him to the hospital, and he was buried on the same day, the officer said.
Ablet had never committed any crimes and had no record of arguments with his neighbors or others, he added.
Prior reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service found that as arrests in Xinjiang increased around the sensitive 19th Communist Party Congress in Beijing in October, the region’s re-education camps have been inundated by detainees, who are forced to endure cramped and squalid conditions in the facilities.
Chinese authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but Uyghur activists estimate that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017.
Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo 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 Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.