Uyghur poet and educator said to be serving 13-year prison term in Xinjiang

A prominent Uyghur poet and associate professor at a teacher’s college was detained in 2017 as a “threat to social stability” and sentenced to 13 years in prison on a “separatism” charge, a local police officer and Uyghur source told RFA.

Ablet Abdureshid Berqi is serving time in Tumshuq Prison, a detention facility located in Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a state-owned economic and paramilitary organization in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). 

Since its founding in 1954, the XPCC, which is also known as Bingtuan, has built and administered several urban centers in Xinjiang, mainly to resettle Han Chinese from other parts of the country as part of a campaign of Sinicization. The Bingtuan also operates prisons and publicly traded companies. 

An RFA investigation confirmed that Berqi, which is a pseudonym, was arrested two years ago amid a purge of Uyghur intellectuals, educators and cultural leaders — one of a set of Chinese government policies that have been determined by the United States and the parliaments of some Western countries as constituting genocide.

The abuses also include forced labor at factories and farms, forced birth control and the detention of up to 1.8 million Uyghurs in a network of internment camps.

A Chinese official at the Xinjiang Education Institute, a university for teacher education in the XUAR’s capital Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) where Berqi worked, told RFA that he was not authorized to disclose information about Berqi and suggested the reporter contact the school administration office. 

“I don’t know this person,” the official said. “I haven’t heard of this person. We have more than 1,000 employees at the school. Let me give you a phone number. You ask the school administration office.”

Other officials at the institute refused to provide information about Berqi, however.

Later, officials at the directorate of school education told RFA that the institute did not employ an instructor named Berqi.

RFA also contacted a police officer in the poet’s hometown of Sampul village in southern Xinjiang’s Hotan (Hetian) prefecture, who confirmed that he was serving a 13-year term in Tumshuq Prison.

“He is in prison now,” the police officer said. “The reasons were threats to social stability and going abroad. He was detained in 2017, and after three months he was sentenced to prison for 13 years and is now serving his term in Tumshuq Prison.”

The officer also pointed to “mistakes he made while teaching at school,” including articles Berqi wrote and lectures he gave.

Berqi’s parents live in the village’s Aydingkol hamlet, the officer said. 

A top target

In an article published in the 2000s, Berqi said he used a pseudonym because his real name was the same as the XUAR chairman, Ablet Abdureshid, which led to a number of misunderstandings, particularly after the poet’s writings were published in newspapers and magazines. 

He also said the pseudonym, which means “flourishing” in the Uyghur language, reflected the greater success he hoped to achieve in his creative career.

Berqi wrote his doctoral dissertation on Abduhalik Uyghur, a prominent Uyghur revolutionary poet in the early 20th century who was killed by Sheng Shicai, a Chinese militarist who ruled Xinjiang from 1933 to 1944. 

Berqi also studied at Haifa University in Israel between 2014 and 2016, said Nimrod Baranovitch, a lecturer in Chinese culture and society at the university, who met the poet in Urumqi a decade earlier and later applied for a postdoctoral fellowship for him.

“[W]e kept in contact for many years, and then we decided we should try to bring him over to study and research here,” Baranovitch told RFA. “We had tried that once in the past, but it didn’t work. And then we tried it again, and it worked.”

Two years ago, authorities charged Berqi with “separatism” and sentenced him to 13 years in prison because of articles he wrote on economic awareness and development in the XUAR, which were published in the CCP-controlled Xinjiang Civilization magazine, according to information from an RFA listener.

The last official mention of his name was on Jan. 5, 2017, in a notice issued by the Xinjiang Education Institute’s publicity department. It said that the research topics officially approved by the Chinese government included a project by Berqi relating to the stability of Xinjiang.

At the end of 2017, Berqi’s name was on a list of Uyghur intellectuals who had been imprisoned, but due to the Chinese government’s tight control over information, it was only five years later, in July 2022, RFA learned about his sentencing.

Husenjan, one of the Berqi’s colleagues who now resides abroad, said he received was told by sources in Urumqi that Berqi had been sentenced to prison but did not know the length of his term.

“I recently received official news that he was, in fact, detained, but I wasn’t able to get information on whether or how long he was sentenced to prison,” he said.

As a writer and intellectual, Berqi would have been a top target for authorities amid the ongoing repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Husenjan said.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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