By Salim Yunusa
A prominent Uyghur businessman and philanthropist was tortured and died in a prison in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, local officials in the region and friends of the deceased man who live abroad told RFA last week.
Yaqub Haji was one of two businessmen who donated money to the building of a mosque in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), a city in far northern Xinjiang near Kazakhstan, before he was arrested in 2018 on suspicion of “religious extremism.”
Chinese authorities have targeted and arrested numerous Uyghur businessmen, intellectuals, and cultural and religious figures in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for years as part of a campaign to monitor, control, and assimilate members of the minority group purportedly to prevent religious extremism and terrorist activities.
Many of them have been among the 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities believed to be held in a network of detention camps in Xinjiang since 2017. Beijing has said that the camps are vocational training centers and has denied widespread and documented allegations that it has mistreated Muslims living in Xinjiang.
The United States and the legislatures in several European countries have deemed the treatment of Uyghurs and others in the XUAR as constituting genocide and crimes against humanity.
An RFA investigation of social media reports of Haji’s death by Uyghurs in exile friends has confirmed that the Uyghur died while being detained in a Chinese government-run internment camp and that his was buried in Ghulja’s Karadong Cemetery.
Uyghurs who knew Haji said the businessman and philanthropist was in good health before his arrest by Chinese authorities in 2018.
RFA’s investigation suggests that authorities released Haji’s body to one of his siblings on Sept. 6 before a rushed burial.
A friend of Haji’s who spoke to RFA from Central Asia said that he found out about his death on the same day that prison officials handed over his body to his family.
Haji had been working in real estate development and exporting before his imprisonment in 2018, said the friend, who requested anonymity out of concern for reprisals from the Chinese government.
“He was born in 1976 and became wealthy doing both real estate development and exports to Kazakhstan,” he said in a phone interview. “He also became a philanthropist helping many people.”
Another friend of Haji’s who recently left Ghulja said Haji had been detained for his religious philanthropic contributions and that prison guards gave his body to his older brother after he died.
“I heard from community members that Yaqub Haji was imprisoned because of his donation to the building of the mosque and for giving 3,000 yuan to a religious cleric to build a house,” said the man who asked not to be named for safety reasons.
“He was tortured for not ‘confessing’ to those ‘crimes’ and kept in solitary confinement for a long time,” he said.
Chinese authorities returned Haji’s dead body to his family on condition that they could not gather many people for his burial, he added.
“Police also said that the cause of Haji’s death was unmitigated fever,” his friend told RFA.
When Haji’s body was returned to his family, they found out that both of his legs had already decomposed, he said.
A local official and two police officers in Ghulja told RFA that they could not comment on Haji’s death or give any details.
Another police officer in Ghulja’s Kazanchi neighborhood declined to tell RFA the cause of Haji’s death, though he did not deny that the businessman died in prison.