Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) detained for one month a Uyghur former official who resigned due to complications from an injury he sustained while fleeing an incident of unrest five years ago, according to sources.
On July 28, 2014, Uyghur residents of Elishku township, in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture’s Yarkand (Shache) county, protested the detention of a dozen Uyghur women for praying overnight at a local mosque and the subsequent indiscriminate use of force and extra-judicial killings by Chinese security forces in several townships.
Authorities fired on the protesters with live ammunition and at least 96 people were killed in the ensuing violence, according to Chinese state media, though Uyghur exile groups have said as many as 2,000 may have died. A crackdown by police in the county following the incident led to mass jailings of work-age Uyghur males.
At least two officials—Dongbagh township chairman Gholam Tohti and the township’s ruling Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Committee secretary Abdugheni Turdi—were being held hostage by protesters when they were gunned down by the security forces, their widows have claimed.
Ablimit Omer, the ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary of Elishku’s No. 26 village, had been sent to the protest by Tohti to persuade those involved to turn themselves over to police, but when authorities opened fire, he fled through nearby fields and broke his leg after falling into a ditch, according to a Uyghur source living in exile in Turkey.
Soon after the incident, the source told RFA’s Uyghur Service on condition of anonymity, Omer asked to leave his position due to complications from his injury and his superiors accepted his resignation.
However, three years later, Omer’s decision to quit was labeled an “act against the government,” and he was detained in one of a network of internment camps where authorities in the XUAR have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
A Uyghur source from Yarkand, who also declined to be named, told RFA that Omer was held at the internment camp for one month, but released after authorities listened to a voicemail message he had received from Dongbagh township chairman Gholam Tohti asking him to assist with handling the protest, prior to Tohti’s death.
The Turkey-based source said that everyone who assisted the wounded in the aftermath of the unrest had been arrested and given prison sentences, including several people who were held for six months before being exonerated, and that in the last three years, anyone who resigned from a government position in Yarkand after the incident had been sent to internment camps for “religious extremism.”
While two police officers in Yarkand told RFA that they had no knowledge of Omer, a third confirmed that the village party secretary “was at the scene of the July 28 incident, and we heard that he was injured.”
When asked when Omer was taken to an internment camp, a fourth officer told RFA it had happened “in early 2017.”
The officer said that the reason Omer was detained was because “he used to work as a village secretary, but resigned after he broke his leg.”
The fourth officer was unable to confirm whether Omer’s injury had occurred while fleeing the shooting, or whether he was nearby when Tohti was killed.
Shortly after they were killed, both Tohti and Turdi were named “revolutionary heroes” for dying in the line of duty, but their widows told RFA at the time that the government had failed to protect them.
They said that two months after the incident, neither had received any written notice about how their husbands were killed or how the state would care for their families, and that officials had simply told them the two men had been “killed by terrorists.”
Atigul Kerim, the wife of Tohti, said that she initially believed the story, “but then I did not because when I saw my husband’s corpse there were bullet holes, not knife wounds, on his chest.”
Official reports had said the Uyghur protesters were armed with explosives as well as knives, axes, and batons, and suggested they did not carry guns.
“My husband was shot in Nochi village and later my friends in Nochi told me that … the rioters had only a few knives, batons, and axes. My husband was killed by bullets. How it is possible the rioters killed my husband,” Kerim asked at the time.
“If we were told the truth and the authorities admitted their mistake, I wouldn’t have been this angry, but they lied, saying that rioters killed my husband when he clearly had been shot. What kind of government would kill its own officials and lie about it?”
In August 2017, official sources told RFA that authorities in the XUAR had sentenced retired veterinarian Haliq Mahmut to eight years in prison for removing a bullet from the leg of a wounded fellow Uyghur who asked him for assistance at his home on the night of the Yarkand incident.
Call for accountability
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region.
Last month, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the internment camps in the XUAR “one of the worst human rights crises of our time” and “truly the stain of the century.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also slammed the camps “where [Uyghurs] endure around-the-clock brainwashing” and survivors have described their experience as “a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.”
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently told RFA in an interview that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.
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.