The elderly Uyghur imam of a mosque in Atush city has been confirmed detained by authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for “religious extremism,” according to his U.S.-based niece, who said she has been unable to verify whether he is alive or dead.
Earlier this month, Maryam Muhammad recorded video testimony as part of a Uyghur archival project based in Norway in which she said she had learned that her nonagenarian uncle Abidin Ayup, who served for more than 30 years as the imam of the Qayraq Mosque in the XUAR’s Kizilsu Kirghiz (in Chinese, Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Region capital, had been detained in “early 2017.”
In the testimony, Muhammad said she last heard information about Ayup from her mother in February 2019, and demanded that Chinese authorities release details about his whereabouts and wellbeing.
“Where is my 90-year-old uncle Abidin Ayup,” she asks authorities in the video.
“Is he dead? Alive? If you still haven’t released him, you will be responsible for his death.”
Muhammad, who lives in exile in Boston, recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service to explain how she had learned of Ayup’s detention, as well as the efforts she has since made to determine where he is and if he is still living.
“At the beginning of 2017, he was accused of ‘religious extremism,’ and he was detained at the beginning of that year,” she said.
“I only know this latest news after seeing a [court] document that came from Atush. Otherwise, up to now I haven’t been able to speak with anyone about his situation. My mother told me about my uncle’s detention when she and I last spoke in February 2019, but I haven’t heard anything since.”
The document, a copy of which was provided to RFA, was issued on July 1, 2019 by the Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court as part of a verdict in the trial of a majority Han Chinese man named Song Kaicai who had served as vice secretary of the Atush city Communist Party Committee and secretary of the Atush city Communist Party Legal Committee.
In addition to “corruption” and “criminal negligence,” Song was charged with abuse of power for allowing Ayup’s family to visit him in the hospital, where he had been given “supervised treatment” for a period of 50 days beginning in May 2017.
While the document does not include information about Ayup’s health condition at the time, it refers to the imam and religious scholar as an “object of targeted transformation” and “disseminator of religious extremism.”
The document also lacks information about when Ayup was detained or whether prior to his treatment he had been held in one of the XUAR’s internment camps, where authorities have placed as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017. Camp incarcerations are largely extra-judicial decisions.
Song, who was arrested on Jan. 19, 2019, was ultimately convicted and sentenced by the court on March 26, 2019, the document said.
“It appears that [my uncle] got sick around May of  and was taken to the Atush City Hospital,” Muhammad told RFA.
“At the time that he was taken there, a Han official gave permission for his sons and some other relatives to see him in the hospital. The Han official was the secretary of a legal office in Atush city. They arrested him for this. It appears that he was punished for ‘taking bribes.’”
Respected religious figure
Muhammad called her uncle “an upright and well-educated religious figure” who had earned the respect of his community and never broke the law or involved himself in politics, but said he was targeted because he had devoted himself to the teachings of Allah.
“Up to now, in his 90s, he hasn’t been involved in anything to do with politics—he only educated others and showed them how to walk on the right path,” she said.
“The reason he was detained is because he followed the scriptures in the Qur’an. China is accusing [him] of [extremism] because they’re afraid of his following the original teachings of the scriptures and Allah’s commands, and because they want to eliminate us.”
Qeyser Mijit, a Boston-based Uyghur intellectual who is also Ayup’s nephew, told RFA that he had always looked up to his uncle, who he called “respected and loving,” using the honorific “Hajim” to refer to him as one who has made the holy Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
“He always took care of orphans, was kind to his neighbors, and looked after women and children,” he said.
“What the Chinese authorities are afraid of is not this man himself, it’s what he’s connected to. Because Hajim is educated and respected, what he says goes straight to people’s hearts. He is an elder who talks about things like stopping young people from immoral living, respecting one’s parents, taking care of one’s family, and raising children well.”
Mijit noted that in recent years authorities in the XUAR have been targeting prominent Uyghur religious scholars and intellectuals for internment as part of a bid to undermine the cultural traditions of the ethnic group.
“They’re using the cover of governance to accuse respected, capable people of all sorts of things, charging them with crimes,” he said.
“He is not a religious extremist. The only extremists in this situation are the people who have accused him of this.”
‘They’re all gone’
Meanwhile, Muhammad told RFA that she believes some 60 members of her family back in the XUAR have been placed in internment camps since the policy of mass incarceration began in the region in 2017, including her father, Muhammad Akhun Hajim, who was also a religious figure and member of the official Islamic Association of China.
Muhammad recalled that when they spoke about their relatives by video chat in February 2019, her mother told her that “everyone was gone” and she was left “all alone.”
“She screamed and cried, saying, ‘none of my 11 children remain,’” Muhammad said.
“I asked about our neighbors and other friends, and she said, ‘I’m the only one here, they’re all gone.’”
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year 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’s Uyghur Service 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.
Earlier this month, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) said in its annual report on human rights in China that the XUAR camp system meets definitions laid out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which lists acts that may constitute “crimes against humanity.”