RFA Uyghur 2021-04-23
Ahtam Omer was targeted for sending his nephew to Egypt to study and sending him money there.
Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have sentenced a prominent Uyghur author, whose work was targeted in a book burning campaign following his detention four years ago, to 20 years in prison, according to officials.
A tipster recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that Ahtam Omer, the author of a collection of short stories entitled Child of the Eagle and who had been missing since early 2017, had been detained and that his book was ripped from shelves across the XUAR last year and set alight as part of a campaign to censor him.
According to the source, Omer was detained in 2017 in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture’s Makit (Maigaiti) county, a month after his brother Anwar Omer and nephew Iskander Omer.
“Ahtam Omer was detained and taken from his home on March 12, 2017,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “The basic reason for this, the reason given at the time, was that he had sent his older brother’s son to study in Egypt and sent money to him.”
Egypt is one of several countries blacklisted by authorities in the XUAR for travel by Uyghurs because of a perceived risk of indoctrination with Islamic extremism.
The source said Omer’s literary work was stopped during the police investigation into his activities, after which he was charged with “separatism” and sentenced to prison in a secret trial in the XUAR capital Urumqi in late 2018.
In an effort to verify the claims, RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with a representative from the office where he worked in Urumqi—the Tianshan Film Studio and Circus Troupe—who declined to comment on his case.
A village cadre in Omer’s home township of Tumental township in Makit county claimed that not only did she not know him, but also had no knowledge of the fate of his brother and nephew.
RFA’s source also claimed that several of Omer’s works, including Child of the Eagle, were burned by authorities in the summer of 2020.
“I recently heard that Ahtam Omer’s books were burned,” the source said. “I found a photo about the book burning online. In the photo, I saw Ahtam Omer’s book Child of the Eagle among the books being burned.”
According to the source, Child of the Eagle had a significant impact on Uyghur society because of its focus on the themes of freedom and the spirit of struggle. The story was initially published in China Ethnicities Literature, a national-level journal, and long stayed far away from any official criticism as a result.
However, by 2017, as a wave of “looking to the past” had begun in the XUAR, including in the field of literature, a number of books were rounded up under accusations that they contained “separatist content.” Child of the Eagle was among these books, and the author would ultimately be held to account.
The campaign began around the same time that authorities in the region began detaining what is estimated to be up to 1.8 million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in a vast system of internment camps in the region. While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities. Former detainees have also described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.
According to the source, Misha village in Kashgar’s Peyziwat (Jiashi) county was among the places where Child of the Eagle was burned, under the supervision of the politics and law office of the village party committee and the village police station.
In a telephone interview, a police officer in Misha village told RFA the names of two police personnel who were present for the book burning.
“Alimjan and Nabijan,” the officer said, when asked who had overseen the action.
“There were four people, two police officers and two assistant police.”
The same officer declined to comment on why and under whose direction the book was burned. However, he confirmed that Omer’s book was indeed targeted in the book-burning, as well as that the author is being held in state custody.
“I cannot answer this question for you—the chief will have to answer it for you,” he said initially, when asked whether Omer had been detained for Child of the Eagle.
But when asked if RFA could report that he was unaware of Omer’s detention and sentencing, the officer responded, “We have knowledge of it.”
RFA also spoke with an officer from a village in Tumental township who confirmed that both Omer and his nephew had been sentenced.
“Thirteen years,” the officer said, when asked how long Iskander Omer had been sentenced following his return from Egypt.
When questioned about how long Ahtam Omer had been sentenced, the officer responded, “20 years,” adding that the author was targeted for “illegal gatherings and illegal religious activities.”
“[He wasn’t] directly involved, [but] all people who have contact with [Iskander Omer] have been sentenced,” he said.
Last month, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy published a report which said that China has demonstrated “intent to destroy” the Uyghur ethnic minority, and therefore bears state responsibility for committing genocide, in the first independent report to investigate claims of abuses in the XUAR.
The report counted the mass internment campaign, as well as other state policies such as government-mandated homestays, a mass birth-prevention strategy, the forcible transfer of Uyghur children to state-run facilities, the eradication of Uyghur identity, and the selectively targeting of intellectuals and other leader as evidence of intent to destroy the ethnic group.
The U.S. government determined in January that rights violations in the region amount to genocide—a label that has since been similarly applied by the parliaments of Canada, The Netherlands, and the U.K.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.