Death of Uyghur Writer a Shameful Indictment of Chinese Justice

A sketch of Uyghur writer Numermet Yasin. Image courtesy Amnesty International.

A sketch of Uyghur writer Numermet Yasin. Image courtesy Amnesty International.

The reported death of celebrated Uyghur writer Nurmemet Yasin in a Chinese prison is a shameful indictment of the Chinese government’s notion of justice, Amnesty International said today. The international human rights organization says the death exposes the harsh conditions in Chinese prisons.

Although the 38-year-old author’s death was reported only a few days ago, he apparently died sometime in 2011 in Shaya prison in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). His death is a flagrant example of the limits on freedom of expression in China.

Yasin was a prisoner of conscience. Amnesty condemned the author’s death as well as the secrecy surrounding the case and is calling on the Chinese authorities to confirm or deny the reports of Yasin’s death.

Amnesty’s Asia Pacific Deputy Director, Catherine Baber, said: “Nurmemet Yasin should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and if confirmed, the death of this young writer in prison is a shameful indictment of the Chinese government’s notion of justice.”

Yasin was detained in November 2004 after his short story “Wild Pigeon” was published in a Kashgar literary journal. The editor of the Kashgar Literature Journal, Korash Huseyin, was also arrested at the time and sentenced to three years in prison.

RFA image.

RFA image.

The story is a first-person narrative of a young pigeon, the son of a pigeon king, who becomes trapped by humans and commits suicide rather than sacrifice his freedom and live in captivity.  “Now, finally, I can die free,” the narrator says in the story. “I feel as if my soul is on fire – soaring and free.”

The Maralbeshi County People’s Court sentenced Yasin to 10 years imprisonment  for “inciting splittism” following a closed trial in February 2005 during which he was not allowed legal representation. The Kashgar Intermediate People’s Court upheld the sentence on appeal in March 2005.  RFA published the first English translation of the story in June 2005.

The Chinese authorities considered Yasin’s writing to be a veiled indictment of their conduct in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. They often label any independent expression of Uyghur ethnic identity as “separatism” or “religious extremism.”

Uyghurs have faced extreme repression from the Chinese government since the People’s Republic of China took control of Uyghur territory. In recent years, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, Beijing has stepped up its control over Uyghurs, using the global “War on Terror” to justify harsh crackdowns on religious practice, and political and social dissent. Chinese authorities enforced a complete media control, shutting down the Internet and telephone lines in Urumqi and the region after the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwest Xinjiang province.

According to PEN International, Uyghur writers are especially vulnerable. Like other Chinese writers they are subject to censorship and an arbitrary judicial system, but, as members of a Muslim minority, they are particularly targeted as victims of cultural repression. Any expression of their diversity has become regarded as potential treason. History books, poetry, fiction, and books on Uyghur crafts have been banned and burned.

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists reckons that conditions for minority bloggers and journalists in China appear to be especially harsh. “Frankly, we are having growing difficulty tracking many of the cases such as these once they fall into the penal system. More and more often, we have to rely on outside support groups or family members speaking quietly to keep us informed. There is very little official information coming from the justice system,” he told me.

When CPJ speaks quietly with mainstream Chinese journalists, Dietz says the reporters are amazed by the numbers of people in jail that they are unaware of. ”The growth in the number of jailings and apparently worsening conditions strike me as an increasingly desperate tactic on the part of the government to silence critics, especially those with ethnic roots. But worse, it doesn’t look like it will end any time soon,” he added.

Indeed, little is known about the writer’s death, but he is believed to have been suffering ill-health while behind bars, and conditions in Shaya prison are known to be harsh. High-profile dissident Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer, is being held in the same prison.

Yasin was one of the few prisoners in China visited by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak in November 2005. Yasin told Nowak that, during interrogation in November 2004, the police had threatened and beaten him. At one point a policeman had hit him in the face, leaving him with a bloody nose. In prison, he also had been beaten by fellow inmates because he did not speak Mandarin Chinese. In his report following the visit to China, Nowak concluded that “since [Nurmemet Yasin] has been convicted of a political crime, possibly on the basis of information extracted by torture, the Special Rapporteur appeals to the Government that he be released.”

Authorities severely restricted Yasin’s family visits as well as his activities within prison as punishment for having not “reformed his views.”

China’s Criminal Law lists crimes of “endangering state security,” including “subverting state power,” “splitting the State” and “supplying (or providing) state secrets.” Over recent years the authorities have increasingly used these vaguely-worded provisions in the Criminal Law to silence and imprison peaceful activists and to curtail freedom of expression. Amnesty says that those serving sentences for crimes of “endangering state security” are granted sentence-reduction and parole less often that other prisoners, and in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Tibet Autonomous Region almost never.

A prolific author and poet, Yasin was an honorary member of English, American and Independent Chinese PEN. He published three volumes of poetry: First Love, Crying from the Heart and Come on, Children. His writing is included in Uyghur-language school textbooks.

“The Chinese authorities should realize that consigning peaceful writers to a slow death in prison will never destroy their writing, or tame the urge to freedom that their writing inspires,” said Baber.

Yasin was married with two young sons.

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