A respected Uyghur physician who went missing in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) nearly two years ago after being arrested by police is believed to have been detained in an internment camp, according to sources.
Sayit Haji Qasim, the 47-year-old head surgeon at the Urology department of the Kashgar Regional No. 2 Hospital, was taken into custody from his home in the XUAR’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture on Sept. 4, 2017—the evening marking the end of the four-day Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha—sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“His family had no idea why he was arrested and made to disappear,” one source who claims to be acquainted with Qasim said of his elderly parents, wife, and two young children.
“They learned later from the police the reason of his arrest was because he had stayed in a hotel where a suspect stayed on the same night. My guess is that he might have stayed at the hotel after finishing work late at night in a local town hospital where he had been operating,” the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Chinese authorities are believed to have held more than 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of internment camps throughout the XUAR since April 2017.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets suggest 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.
Prior to his arrest, Qasim—who joined the Urology department in Kashgar No. 2 Hospital in 1996 and was appointed lead surgeon in 2004—had become well known for his expertise throughout the southern XUAR after he spent a year in Beijing studying the latest non-invasive methods to remove urinary tract stones.
According to the source, Qasim was in such high demand that he “worked non-stop” and, between 2015 and 2017, “conducted 80 percent of operations [at the Urology department], despite there being more than 10 surgeons.”
He was regularly invited to hospitals in regional townships to lead surgeries there, the source added.
A second source, who also claimed to know Qasim, told RFA that police had informed the surgeon’s family he could be released if the Kashgar Regional No. 2 Hospital would write a letter to the authorities vouching for him and agreeing to act as his guarantor.
“Unfortunately, the hospital declined the family's request,” said the source, who also declined to be named.
“I was very surprised when I heard this … I guess that if the directors are Uyghur, they don't dare to support victims, as they fear for their own jobs and safety.”
The website of the Kashgar Regional No. 2 Hospital no longer lists Qasim among its medical staff, and an initial call to the facility was answered by a staff member who said that no one by that name worked there.
A second call to the hospital was answered by a staff member who told RFA that Qasim was “on break,” but hung up the phone when asked where he was and when he might return.
RFA called the hospital a third time and spoke with a staff member who said that he had “heard that [Qasim] is receiving education,” and that he hadn’t seen him since he left the hospital.
The staff member said he was unsure of when Qasim was first detained or when he might return to work, and suggested that further questions be asked in person to hospital supervisors or Qasim’s family.
‘Stain of the century’
Qasim is one of many Uyghur professionals and intellectuals who have been identified as detainees in XUAR internment camps, and who defy claims by authorities that those held in the facilities are in need of “vocational training.”
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 Mihray Abral for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.