The suspicious death in December 2020 of a Uyghur plant biology researcher at a detention facility in Xinjiang has drawn attention on social media.
Mihriay Erkin, 29, left her job at Japan’s Nara Technology and Science Institute in June 2019 and returned to China over concerns about the safety of her parents in Xinjiang. She was arbitrarily detained and sent to the Yanbulaq detention center in Kashgar in February 2020.
Her relatives blame Chinese authorities for her death, which they say they learned about only recently. China denies all allegations pertaining to the persecution of Uyghurs and calls the internment camps "vocational institutes" that deradicalize extremists.
“I learned the news almost six months after my niece Mihriay was killed by Chinese authorities, but I still don’t know if she has an actual grave or not,” said Abduweli Ayup, Erkin’s uncle and a Norway-based Uyghur rights activist.
Ayup launched a social media campaign last week with Uyghur activists to highlight Erkin and demand that China disclose the circumstances surrounding her death.
Father, aunt detained
Mihriay Erkin’s father, Erkin Ayup, a former Chinese government official, and her aunt, Sajidigul Ayup, a former high school teacher, had been detained by Chinese authorities for almost two years in Xinjiang when Mihriay decided to leave Japan in 2019.
The oldest of two siblings, Erkin moved to Japan in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in plant biology at Tokyo University.
Abduweli Ayup said he warned Erkin against returning to Xinjiang, but she ignored the advice after local Chinese police used her mother to lure her back. Her last words to him before she left were, “If I die, if I have a grave, a bouquet of peonies will mark my grave.”
"My niece died in [a] detention center, and her father and aunt were sentenced to 12 and 14 years in prison,” he said. He added that it was unclear whether Erkin’s mother and brother were also detained, as he has lost contact with them.
According to a report July 10 by Amnesty International, China’s extreme measures toward Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang constitute “crimes against humanity.”
“Chinese authorities have built one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance systems and a vast network of hundreds of grim ‘transformation-through-education’ centers — actually, internment camps — throughout Xinjiang,” the report said.
During a news conference in Beijing on June 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused the watchdog organization of misleading the public through “lies” about Xinjiang.
“Its so-called report is like adding one more page to its ‘record of lies,’” Wang said about the Amnesty International report.
Neither Wang nor any Xinjiang official has responded to Uyghur activists’ requests for information about how Erkin died in detention.
Rushan Abbas, an American Uyghur rights activist and executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs, told VOA that Erkin’s fate marked a growing push by Beijing to target Uyghur diaspora members who speak up about Xinjiang human rights violations.
“My heart breaks for Mihriay, for Abduweli, and for the millions of Uyghurs around the world who are facing these same fears and trials,” Abbas told VOA.
Her sister, Gulshan Abbas, a retired doctor in China, was arbitrarily detained and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2019.
“I am scared for my sister and pray that she is staying strong, but that love I have for my sister and for my people fuels me with strength to fight harder,” Abbas said.
According to a joint report recently published by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, many diaspora Uyghurs have been encouraged to return home by the government via messages on WeChat or phone calls from relatives, only to be arrested upon arrival.