A Uyghur hatmaker and his wife detained in 2017 amid mass arrests in Xinjiang of members of the mostly Muslim minority group by Chinese authorities have been confirmed as having died in prison while serving their sentences, people with knowledge of the couple’s situation said.
Haji’ahun and his spouse Mehpiremhan, residents of Maralbeshi county in Kashgar prefecture, were each sentenced to 10 years in Tumshuq Prison in 2019 for “illegal” religious activities, according to the sources.
The prison housed others arbitrarily arrested during the 2017 crackdown on prominent and ordinary Uyghurs alike, jailing them in “re-education” camps and prisons for alleged extremist behavior, such as previous trips or contacts abroad or religious activities.
China has come under harsh international criticism for its severe rights abuses of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, including forced labor.
The U.S. government and several Western parliaments, including the German Bundestag, have declared that the abuses amount to genocide or crimes against humanity.
Tumshuq Prison authorities released the bodies of several jailed Uyghurs who had died to their families in secret one week before the Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in late April, according to an émigré from Maralbeshi in a previous RFA report.
Based on that information, RFA confirmed that the body of Uyghur motorcycle repairman Memettursun Metniyaz was among those returned to relatives. The Maralbeshi county resident had been jailed in early 2017 for completing the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, years before.
Maralbeshi police contacted by RFA also confirmed the return of corpses of dead prisoners to their families a week before the Eid holiday, but they said they did not know the exact number or the causes of death.
An employee at a police station in Maralbeshi country, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the number of inmates who have died in Tumshuq Prison has been exceptionally high, and that the hatmaker was among those who passed away before Eid.
The staffer also said that a rumor had been circulating that inmates who died before the holiday had eaten contaminated food in prison, though RFA could not determine the accuracy of the information.
Another employee at a police station in Maralbeshi confirmed that Haji’ahun, who was in his 70s, and his wife, who was in her 60s, died together in prison where they had been serving time since their sentencing in 2019.
“They were an old couple. Both passed away,” she said.
Translated by the Uyghur Service. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Paul Eckert.