Prominent Uyghur Writer Dies After Being Deprived Treatment in Xinjiang Internment Camp

uyghur-nurmemet-tohti-crop.jpg Nurmemet Tohti in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener

A prominent Uyghur writer has died after being deprived treatment for diabetes while held in an internment camp in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to sources.

Nurmuhemmet Tohti, 70, was detained from November 2018 to March this year in China’s vast network of camps in the XUAR, where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017, his Canada-based granddaughter, Zorigul, recently reported.

During his internment, Tohti was denied treatment for diabetes and heart disease, and was only released to his family after he became incapacitated due to his medical condition, she wrote in a message posted to the Uyghurnaz Facebook page, which is maintained by members of the Uyghur exile community.

After suffering complications, Tohti died on May 31, Zorigul wrote, adding that she had only learned of his death 11 days later, because members of her family in the XUAR feared that they would targeted for detention at an internment camp for making the information public.

Zorigul's comments were accompanied by a post to Instagram in which Tohti's grandson, Babur Ilchi, said he had called his grandmother, who confirmed that his grandfather had died.

"Shortly after the call, my grandma received a message from the Chinese government saying she had answered a foreign call and that that was a dangerous decision," he wrote, adding, "What did she do other than tell us he had passed away? Why should that be met with consequences?"

"His name was Nurmuhemmet Tohti and he was a respected writer; no affiliation with terrorism, which is what the Chinese government claims these concentration camps are fighting against. He deserved better, and so do the MILLIONS of Uyghurs who are suffering in these camps rights now."

Ilchi wrote that by denying him treatment, "my grandfather was murdered by the Chinese government."

Tohti, from Tewekul village in the XUAR’s Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture, had graduated from Xinjiang University in the prefectural capital Urumqi in 1977 and worked as a lecturer at Hotan Pedagogical College before taking a position as a secretary with the Hotan Prefectural Government.

Despite faithfully serving the government for many years, authorities have not released any official confirmation of the death of the man who also worked for the Xinjiang Writers Association and was revered within his community for having left an indelible mark on Uyghur literature.

While investigating Tohti’s case, RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with multiple contacts at various branches of the Hotan Prefectural Government, but no one at these departments was able to confirm his death or where he had been held.

However, when asked when Tohti was released from his internment camp, the secretary of the Hotan Prefectural Department of Culture told RFA that it was “about one month ago.”

Other reports from within the Uyghur community in exile suggested that despite his critical health condition, Tohti was kept in shackles after being released from the camp in March and returned to his family, although RFA was unable to independently confirm this information.

Camp network

Though Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps, China has tried to change the discussion, describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.

Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.

In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, cited “massive human rights violations in Xinjiang where over a million people are being held in a humanitarian crisis that is the scale of what took place in the 1930s.”

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service in an interview that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.

“The Muslim countries should do that. The Western world, the entire world, should do this and condemn these sort of internment camps, of over a million people interned in the year 2019, and they are interned primarily because of their faith and the practice of their faith,” he said.

The U.S. Congress has also joined in efforts to halt the incarcerations, debating legislation that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network and the security threats posed by the crackdown.

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


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