The death of the prominent Uighur writer Nurmuhemmet Tohti after being held in one of Xinjiang’s internment camps has been condemned as a tragic loss by human rights organisations. Tohti, who was 70, had been detained in one of the controversial “re-education” camps from November 2018 to March 2019. His daughter, Zorigul, who is based in Canada, said he had been denied treatment for diabetes and heart disease, and was only released once his medical condition meant he had become incapacitated. She wrote on a Facebook page for the Uighur exile community that she had only learned of his death 11 days after it happened because her family in Xinjiang had been frightened that making the information public would make them a target for detention.
Nurmuhemmet Tohti was the first person in Hotan to stand up and talk about poverty, inequality, oppression. He published the first investigative report on this issue in 1993. At the time he also raised issues of drug abuse and poverty, and the link between them. In 1996, he published his “Letter from Hotan on Hashar” (forced labour) in the region. Chinese government agencies learned of the letter and asked universities and faculty to ignore the investigative report which subsequently became an international issue.
In 2000, he wrote about desertification in Uyghur regions as a result of lack of water and state-sponsored immigration. He urged a policy of maintaining a better balance, because there was not enough water or resources to support these immigrants. He mentioned this issue in numerous reports. He wrote a book about a poet who focused on Uyghur farmers who are a poor, suffering and vulnerable community. The poet died in Hotan, and then Tohti wrote a book about him: “The Poet and the Uyghur Farmers”.
In general Tohti’s work covered poverty, inequality, women’s rights, orphaned children, education. One of his articles was about a Uyghur boy who committed suicide because he could not afford his school tuition.
After Tohti’s arrest, he suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack and couldn’t get treatment. He lasted 70 days without treatment, and then was finally allowed to leave detention and return to his family. Two months later, on 31 May 2019, he died.
His arrest may be specifically linked to a piece he wrote about freedom after a 2015 trip to Canada. Unable to officially publish the piece, Tohti released it online. The website that hosted it, Bagdax.com, was subsequently shut down, and the website owner was sentenced to 17 years in prison.