Nurmuhammad Tohti, sitting at a scholarly gathering in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, China. (Abduweli Ayup).
Nurmuhammad Tohti, sitting at a scholarly gathering in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, China. (Abduweli Ayup).

A prominent Uighur writer, who had been held at an internment camp in China’s Xinjiang region, has died, his family members told VOA.

Nurmuhammad Tohti, a well-known writer in Xinjiang's Uighur community, was picked up by state authorities last year from his home and taken to the controversial internment camps for re-education purposes, according to his family members now living in exile in Canada.

Berna Ilchi, Tohti’s granddaughter, told VOA they had not been able to confirm whether Tohti died inside the camp or later at his home because the family in China could not elaborate on circumstances of his death, fearing their phone was tapped by officials.

“We called grandmother [this week] to see if the news of my grandfather passing away that we saw on social media was true. My grandmother said he had passed way eleven days ago,” Ilchi said. She added that she did not know whether her grandfather was tortured to death or medically neglected while he was at the internment camp.  

“The truth is that they put a 70-year old man, my grandfather, with diabetes and heart disease inside a concentration camp, and they cannot deny this,” she said.

She added that soon after her phone call, Chinese state authorities inquired about the foreign phone call her family received in Xinjiang.

“What my grandmother did was simply answer a phone call from her family telling them about the passing away of her husband. Why should that be scrutinized?” she asked.

Who is in the camps?

Tohti is not the only intellectual who was taken to the so-called re-education camps, which China vehemently defends as a necessary measure to counter what Chinese officials call the growing threat of extremism in the country.

According to a recent report by the Uighur Human Rights Project, a Washington-based reporting and advocacy organization, hundreds of journalists, students and intellectuals of the Uighur community have been forcibly taken to the state-run internment camps.

The report, Detained and Disappeared: Intellectuals Under Assault in the Uighur Homeland, charges that based on testimonies of close relatives of those detained, currently there are more than 380 known cases of  intellectuals interned, disappeared or imprisoned, including 101 students and 285 scholars, artists and journalists.

Henryk Szadziewski, a senior researcher at the Uighur Human Rights Project and one of the authors of the report, told VOA family members of these interned intellectuals living overseas have little if any information about the well-being or whereabouts of their loved ones.

International criticism

China's internment camps have been criticized by international rights organizations and Western governments, including the United States. They accuse the Chinese government of violating the basic human rights of Uighurs.  

China defends the camps, calling them “vocational training centers.”

Last week, on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest that was followed by a military crackdown on peaceful protests, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that "Chinese citizens  have been subjected to a new wave of abuses, especially in Xinjiang, where the Communist Party leadership is methodically attempting to strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Islamic faith, including through the detention of more than 1 million members of Muslim minority groups.”

“Even as the party builds a powerful surveillance state," he added, "ordinary Chinese citizens continue to seek to exercise their human rights, organize independent unions, pursue justice through the legal system and simply express their views, for which many are punished, jailed and even tortured.”

Beijing's view

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs downplayed the issue. Spokesman Geng Shuang called Pompeo’s criticism interference in China’s internal affairs.

“What really matters is whether he [Pompeo] is willing to know about the real Xinjiang," said Shuang. "It will be a totally different matter if he chooses to ignore the facts, becomes obsessed in telling lies and fallacies, and attempts to interfere in China's internal affairs under the pretext of human rights and religion.”

Uighur identity

Szadziewski of the Uighur Human Rights Project says he believes China’s broader strategy behind its targeting of ethnic Uighurs is to erase their identity.  

“This is about a particular kind of displacement which would remove Uighurs from ties to their homeland and confirm the territorial consolidation of Xinjiang for Chinese Communist Party,” he said.

“It’s not only about reconfiguring the region but also about reconfiguring the people of this region [Xinjiang], the Uighurs. I mean the tangible and intangible dimensions,” he added.