Arzugul Kadeer, the younger sister of veteran Uyghur rights advocate Rebiya Kadeer, is confirmed to have died one week after her release from an internment camp, according to official sources in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Rebiya Kadeer recently spoke out about how her relatives back in the XUAR have been targeted for detention, in part due to her advocacy efforts abroad, after Chinese authorities in March forced her granddaughter Aydidar Kahar and her younger brother Mamatjan Kadeer to speak onscreen at a press conference, claiming that all members of the family are “free” and living “happily.”
The press conference was the latest bid by Beijing to control the narrative about the situation in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities as part of a campaign of mass extralegal incarceration since early 2017.
Amid increasing scrutiny of China’s policies in the XUAR, the U.S. government in January designated abuses in the region part of a campaign of genocide—a label that was similarly applied by the parliaments of Canada, The Netherlands, and the U.K. China has dismissed the allegations and sought to undermine claims by former detainees by coercing their relatives to call them liars on camera.
Rebiya Kadeer, 74, a prominent businesswoman in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, was released from a Chinese prison in March 2005 on medical parole after being jailed for six years for sending politically sensitive newspaper clippings abroad, and went into exile in the U.S. She served 11 years as leader of the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC), and heads the International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation.
According to Rebiya Kadeer, a total of 38 of her family members have been in some form of detention in the region. She said that among those detained were her sisters Arzugul Kadeer and Halcham Kadeer, as well as five others who were released only after their health was in critical condition—including her brother Memet Kadeer and her son Ablikim Abdurehim.
Rebiya Kadeer said that her relationship with Arzugul had been cut off since mid-2014, but in late 2017 she received information that her sister had died in a camp. Rebiya noted that she and Arzugul had continued speaking on the phone through 2014 despite threats from the police, leading police to repeatedly call her in for questioning and even conduct a raid of her home.
RFA’s Uyghur Service called authorities in Arzugul Kadeer’s home county of Kuchar (in Chinese, Kuche), in the XUAR’s Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, several times in 2017 to confirm the claim but was unable to do so after personnel refused to provide any information about the case.
However, a source claiming familiarity with the situation in Kuchar, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, told RFA that Arzugul Kadeer, who was retired from the Kuchar County Bureau of Food and Beverages, had been detained for a month by police in the aftermath of deadly unrest in the XUAR capital Urumqi.
Some 200 people died and 1,700 were injured in the three-day rampage of violence that began on July 5, 2009 in Urumqi between ethnic minority Uyghurs and Han Chinese, according to China’s official figures, although Uyghur rights groups say the numbers are much higher.
At the time, authorities claimed Rebiya Kadeer had instigated the unrest from abroad. It remains unclear under what circumstances Arzugul Kadeer was detained and under what terms she was released.
The source said Arzugul Kadeer was detained for a second time in June 2014, the same period in which China claimed there was a “wave” of “religious extremism” in the XUAR and began a crackdown on Uyghur society, known as the “New Strike Hard Campaign,” that included large-scale detentions and high-profile trials.
She was reportedly released in mid-2015 after serving a one-year term in prison following this second detention and subsequent arrest. The charges that landed her in jail and the conditions and terms of her release also remain unknown at this time.
RFA’s source said Arzugul Kadeer had been detained by representatives of the neighborhood committee in Saqsaq in coordination with Kuchar’s Dongmehelle Township Police Station, however, relevant officials in Saqsaq could not confirm the information.
A representative of the Kuchar county police station revealed that she had once received a report stating that Arzugul Kadeer was missing and asking for information on her whereabouts, but then declined to comment further.
According to RFA’s source, Arzugul was detained a third and final time in 2017 at the age of 69. The source said that she was unable to withstand the interrogations and torture she received while in detention, and that her health rapidly declined, resulting in her loss of physical strength and inability to move.
The source also claimed that after she failed to comply with certain arrangements inside the camp, police turned her over to the neighborhood committee of Saqsaq in a state of poor health. Committee workers took her to the Kuchar County Hospital, and one week later the authorities turned her body over to her children.
A police officer in Kuchar city confirmed that Arzugul died in hospital “three or four” years ago. She claimed that the party-state “cared” for her on account of her old age and that she had left “education”—a euphemism for the camp—early, despite her many “mistakes,” but also noted that the treatment she received in the hospital was ultimately ineffective due to serious health problems.
“She died in the hospital,” the officer said. “Apparently she was ill,” she added, noting that Arzugul had died approximately “one week” after leaving the camp. She was unable to provide any details on the cause of death.
Targeting family members
Abdurashid Niyaz, an independent researcher in Turkey, told RFA that cracking down on dissidents and their family members is “a particularly cruel and inhumane act,” and suggested that such methods are a sign not of strength, but rather of weakness.
“Although it’s very clear that these detained and surveilled prisoners have absolutely no relationship to the political activities their relatives are engaging in, the Chinese communists are adopting and using such cruel methods in an attempt to preserve their rule and to achieve stability, even if for just a period,” he said.
“But humanity will not forgive this, and cannot accept it, because punishing people’s relatives is a method that is contradictory to human nature.”
Nonetheless, he said, Uyghur rights activists are aware of the risks facing themselves and their loved ones and are often mentally prepared to pay such a price for their activism.
“Throughout history we have seen the price [of this work] in front of our very eyes and are still continuing to work for our political struggle,” he said.
“I believe that if it becomes necessary to pay the price of our own lives for the freedom and independence of our homeland, no Uyghur would think twice.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.