Prominent Uyghur Muslim cleric Abdukerim Abduweli is believed to have died in detention in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) after spending nearly 30 years in prison, according to his brother and a Uyghur exile group.
Born in 1955 in the seat of Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Kuchar (Kuche) county, Abduweli, who is also known as Kerem Qari, was arrested in November 1990 and sentenced the following year to 12 years in the XUAR capital Urumqi’s No. 3 Prison for “propagating and instigating counter-revolutionary ideology” related to religious activities.
However, authorities extended the prison term of the cleric, whose case drew attention from the international community, on five different occasions each time his sentence was nearly complete—most recently for five years in 2014, moving his release date to June of 2019.
A recent report by Turkey-based Uyghur exile group East Turkistan Education and Solidarity Association suggested that Abduweli may have died in prison.
Calls by RFA’s Uyghur Service to Urumqi’s No. 3 Prison and various police stations in Kuchar county seeking confirmation of Abduweli’s death went unanswered in recent days.
But Abduweli’s Norway-based younger brother Muhemmet Emin recently told RFA that he heard from an ethnic Uyghur worker who was helping to renovate his home in Istanbul, Turkey, in June last year that the cleric may have died in jail.
“While talking with one of the workers, I asked him where he was from and he said [the seat of the XUAR’s Turpan (Tulufan) prefecture], so I mentioned that I am from Kuchar,” Emin said.
“Then he asked, ‘Do you know Kerem Qari from Kuchar?’ So my wife told him that I am his younger brother. He said, ‘I have a close friend who served some time in prison that told me Kerem Qari died in jail.’”
According to Emin, the worker said that he would return the next day with “additional information,” but he never did, and Emin said he didn’t investigate any further.
Emin told RFA he became aware in 2014 that Abduweli “was ill and couldn’t walk” after contacting his younger brother Abdurahman, who had met with him during one of the handful of family visits he was allowed each year.
“He had become very thin and was unable to walk,” Emin said.
“My younger brother told me that he was confined to a wheelchair when he saw him in prison,” he said.
Emin cut off contact with his family in the beginning of 2015 when he learned that his daughter was detained after speaking with him by telephone, and he never determined whether Abduweli’s health had improved.
He said he remains unsure of his daughter’s fate and believes that most of his more than 20 family members in Kuchar have since been taken into custody.
“I recently heard from sources that no one from my family remains free—they have all been locked up,” he said.
“I also learned that my two younger brothers, Abdurahman and Ibrahim, have been sentenced to seven and 10 years in prison. I don’t know what has happened to the rest of my family members, whether they are dead or alive.”
Abduweli’s case has been routinely raised by international human rights organizations, including London-based Amnesty International, and Western governments during rights dialogues with China, including by a delegation from the European Union in July of this year.
According to the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, Abduweli held several hunger strikes to protest his prolonged incarceration, including for nine months in late 2011. The group said Abduweli had also been diagnosed with bone and joint cancer.
Memet Tohti, chairman of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group’s Refugee Affairs Commission, told RFA that the multiple extensions of Abduweli’s prison term showed that the verdict in his case was invalid.
“The Chinese authorities failed to honor their own decision and law,” he said.
“[If the reports of his death are accurate] they denied him the right to see sunlight before his life ended. One could say this is a state crime against one’s life.”
Tohti said that China regularly deceives the international community about cases such as Abduweli’s and rarely acknowledges concerns raised about them by foreign delegations.
“The foreign relationship office branches based in Beijing, when receiving lists of missing people, doesn’t even bother to respond anymore,” he said.
Reported by Jilil Kashgari for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.