Celebrated Uyghur poet and renowned writer Haji Mirzahid Kerimi has died while serving an 11-year jail term, according to official sources.
Kerimi, 82, was sentenced to 11 years in prison, despite a serious health condition, because he wrote five books that were later blacklisted by the Chinese government and had delivered a “problematic” speech during an award ceremony for his poetry, sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
He was the oldest among the 14 staff members of Kashgar Publishing House in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city who have been arrested in 2017.
The renowned writer had routinely risked his freedom by penning the most comprehensive histories of figures that helped to establish a Uyghur kingdom in Central Asia between the 8th and 11th centuries.
Reports that Kerimi had died on Jan. 09, 2021 recently began circulating on Uyghur-language social media and RFA was able to confirm that he passed away in prison while serving his latest term.
An officer at the Id Kah Police Station in Kashgar refused to discuss whether Kerimi had died or whether he had overseen security at his funeral, referring further questions to the local Public Security Bureau (PSB).
But two police officers from Kashgar, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal, said that the author and poet had expired recently.
“We heard word that he died—we don’t know the details, though,” one officer said.
“They brought his body from the hospital,” he added, noting that it had first been brought to the hospital from the prison where Kerimi was being held.
A second officer said that a co-worker had told him Kerimi was taken to the hospital from the prison after an incident in which the former editor “jumped and fell.”
The arrest of Kerimi and his colleagues are part of a “sweeping campaign” in the XUAR since the beginning of 2017 to censor literature based on political content, with sensitive books being categorized as “dangerous” or “problematic”.
Kerimi was an outspoken critic, and even as the political situation in Kashgar deteriorated rapidly in recent years, he did not shy away from risk or from sharing his opinions publicly.
On June 17, 2017, he told RFA that Han police in the city had recently raided his home, confiscating a total of five historical novels he had written.
The authorities were apparently “uncomfortable” about phrases and passages in the books that had to do with religion.
He claimed to have spent more than 30 years in prison or under house arrest, beginning when he was around 20 years old.
He said that in addition to the five historical novels, the authorities also confiscated handwritten materials, including drafts of some of his unpublished works.
A year later, in 2018, a political law cadre in Kashgar confirmed to RFA that 30% of current and retired employees of the Kashgar Uyghur Publishing House were in detention.
The cadre mentioned Kerimi as one of the earliest individuals from the publisher to be detained and sentenced, and he told a reporter from RFA that the author had received a sentence of 11 years.
At the time, the employee told RFA that it was not only the author’s books that caused him to run afoul of the authorities. He was reportedly detained in part because of a speech he delivered at a ceremony held in his honour, where he was gifted a ceremonial robe in recognition of his literary work.
Uyghurs throughout the diaspora have been sharing their grief over Kerimi’s death on social media in recent weeks. One anonymous author even wrote a dirge in his memory, lamenting the tragedy of a great life cut short. (Source: RFA)