A close relative of jailed celebrated Uyghur writer Nurmuhemmet Yasin has questioned reports that he has died in prison in China’s Xinjiang region, saying he was in good health condition when she last met him.
Beijing-based legal scholar Teng Biao had said that he heard from friends of Nurmuhemmet Yasin that the writer had died of illness in Shaya prison in 2011,
But Nurmuhemmet Yasin's relative said she visited him in jail in July last year and that she has an appointment to meet with him again later this month.
"He looked like he was in good spirits. When I started crying, he told me not to. I was very concerned about his health beforehand, but he tried to convince me that he is OK and healthy," the relative told RFA's Uyghur Service on Wednesday.
"We pray every day for his release from jail. We count each day he is there," she said.
Villagers from the writer's town said they have not heard any news about his death.
One of them told RFA that on Wednesday morning she met the writer's mother, who said Nurmuhemmet Yasin would be released within the next two years.
The Chinese authorities have not clarified the speculations about his death in the Shaya prison, where conditions are known to be harsh and where high-profile Chinese dissident Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer, is also being held.
Nurmuhemmet Yasin's "friends told me this," Teng said about the speculations about his death. "I haven't had any direct contact with his family, so I can't be 100 percent sure."
"They said it was more than a year ago, and because he fell ill and the treatment at the jail was very poor, but I don't know the actual circumstances."
Nurmuhemmet Yasin was arrested in 2004 after the publication of "Wild Pigeon" in a Kashgar literary journal, and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment following what was described as an unfair trial.
He was one of the few prisoners in China visited by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture in 2005.
A prolific author and poet, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was an honorary member of the English, American, and Independent Chinese branches of PEN, an international writers group. He published three volumes of poetry: First Love, Crying from the Heart, and Come On, Children, and his writing is included in Uyghur-language school textbooks.
Nurmuhemmet Yasin's relative also said that she received a letter from him in October "and it seems like his health is looking good."
She said that she knows his handwriting and that the handwriting in the letter was his.
The Uyghur American Association (UAA), in a statement, called on Beijing to immediately release information on Nurmuhemmet Yasin.
“[Nurmuhemmet] Yasin committed no crime and should never have been imprisoned by China’s government. The sentencing of an innocent writer to ten years in prison for no other cause than his writing clearly highlights the lack of free expression or legal protection for Uyghurs in China," said UAA President Alim Seytoff.
He said that the rumors and speculation surrounding Nurmuhemmet Yasin "demonstrate a critical lack of transparency in China’s legal system and especially in the treatment of Uyghur prisoners.”
"China should immediately inform the world of [Nurmuhemmet] Yasin’s condition and end the brutal practice of torture in its prison system."
Human rights group Amnesty International also called on the Chinese authorities to clarify the situation over Nurmuhemmet Yasin.
Kaiser Abdurusul, the Sweden-based head of the Uyghur chapter of PEN International, said he hadn't heard any news about the writer since March 2009.
"The last time we heard news of Yasin was from his family back in March 2009. His family wrote to us to say that he didn't have long to live. We haven't been in contact with his family" following deadly ethnic clashes in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, in July 2009.
"Later we heard different things from different people. Some said Yasin was fine, while others said he was already dead."
Ethnic tensions run high in Xinjiang, where the mostly Muslim Uyghurs complain of policies favoring Han Chinese migration into their homeland and say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls.
Exiled Uyghur leaders have warned that Uyghurs are rapidly becoming a minority in their own homeland and that those seeking meaningful autonomy are subjected to political control and persecution.
Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur professor at the Central Minorities University in Beijing, said restrictions in Xinjiang are tighter than those elsewhere in China.
"There is a huge gulf between Xinjiang and the rest of China now. People in the rest of China wouldn't probably be criminally charged with going on Twitter or scaling the Great Firewall, but they would in Xinjiang."
"Yasin's case probably wouldn't be regarded as such a big issue, and he probably wouldn't get locked up in jail for so long, much less allowed to die. I'm alive now, talking to you, but maybe if I died, no one would report it."
Reported by Jilil Musha for RFA's Uyghur service and RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services.Translated by Luisetta Mudie, Jilil Musha and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Luisetta Mudie.