A Uyghur textile trader and entrepreneur has died days after being freed from an internment camp in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where he lost more than 100 pounds of weight over his three years in detention, according to sources.
Kurbanjan Abdukerim, 54, passed away three days after his Feb. 23 release from one of the facilities in the XUAR’s vast network of camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since early 2017, his former neighbor Zibibulla told RFA’s Uyghur Service, speaking from exile in an undisclosed location in Europe.
“He died as soon as he got out,” Zibibulla said, adding that he had learned of Abdukerim’s passing on Feb. 27.
The well-known businessman was detained in early 2018 from his home township of Azaq, in Atush (in Chinese, Atushi), a county-level city of around 270,000 people that is the capital of Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture in the cotton- and grape-growing region of southwestern XUAR.
At the time of his detention, Abdukerim was reportedly healthy and weighed around 100 kilograms (220 pounds), said Zibibulla, who declined to provide his family name for fear of reprisal against relatives still in the XUAR. But by the time he was released three years later, Abdukerim was down to 53 kilograms (117 pounds).
In the 1990s, Abdukerim was the first textile trader in Atush to build a factory, which produced scarves, according to Zibibulla. His family regularly traded Chinese fabrics in Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia.
Zibibulla told RFA he believes Abdulkerim was detained in 2018 for taking part in the holy Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia some three years earlier.
“I told him not to go,” he said, noting that such actions are routinely viewed as signs of “religious extremism” by authorities in the XUAR.
Abdukerim is survived by a wife and four children.
RFA spoke with an official from Azaq township to confirm Abdukerim’s death, but he denied any knowledge of the man or his family.
A young woman who answered the phone at the home of the chief of the police station in Abdukerim’s home village of Böger said her parents were attending a “nezir,” or a Uyghur mourning ceremony that occurs three days, seven days, 40 days, and one year after a death.
“In the morning they asked me to watch my younger siblings and went off to a nezir,” she said.
When asked whether the ceremony was being held for Abdukerim, the young woman confirmed that it was. Local authorities had reportedly placed restrictions on the wake, requiring that the number of participants not exceed 20, she added.
An employee overseeing the neighborhood committee in Böger, where the office of the village Party Secretary is located, confirmed that a man named Kurbanjan Abdukerim had been released from detention last week weighing only 53 kilograms.
“He passed away, although his wife is still there and also his children,” she said, adding that he had died only days earlier and was buried under the supervision of local police.
The employee said that she was unaware of the reason for Abdukerim’s detention because “I only recently became the neighborhood head” and “didn’t pay close attention to it at the time.”
She said that several “comrades”—a euphemism for Han officials—had brought Abdukerim’s body for burial.
RFA was unable to independently confirm details about Abdukerim’s health at the time of his passing or the cause of his death.
However, questions remain about the cause of his drastic weight loss in detention, including whether it was the result of malnutrition or an infectious disease he might have contracted in the camp. It was also unclear to what extent his weight loss contributed to his death.
Chinese officials have said the camps are centers for “vocational training,” but reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment—including systematic rape—and political indoctrination.
Amid increasing international scrutiny, authorities in the region have begun to send detainees to work at factories as part of an effort to label internment camps “vocational centers,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labor conditions.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service, Written in English by Joshua Lipes.