(New York)–The death of Nurmuhammad Tohti, a renowned writer in Xinjiang’s Uyghur community, after he was reportedly denied medical treatment for diabetes and heart disease in an internment camp, is an appalling and tragic loss at a time when China is trying to erase the cultural and intellectual life of the Uyghurs and others, PEN America said today.

On June 14, Voice of America reported that Tohti, who was taken to an internment camp by state authorities in November 2018, died several days ago. It is unclear whether he died in the internment camp, or if he was released and died shortly after returning to his family.

The 70-year-old writer’s family members who spoke with VOA reportedly feared their phone was tapped and did not elaborate on the circumstances of his death. Radio Free Asia reported that Tohti was denied treatment for diabetes and heart disease while being held in the camp and died from medical complications shortly after being released in March of this year. Unconfirmed accounts from within the Uyghur community in exile suggest that Tohti was kept in shackles after his release from the camps several months ago.

“The inhumane treatment reported at the internment camps is a grave illustration of the severity of China’s violations of free expression,” said Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “Tohti’s death is a tragic loss to the Uyghur literary community, at a time when the government is attempting to abolish their cultural and intellectual life.”

In western Xinjiang Province, the Chinese government has deepened their crackdown against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. While authorities claim they are acting to combat Muslim extremism, numerous observers—including PEN America—have reported that the government’s policies are instead aimed at suppressing the cultural identity of Uyghurs and other minorities. The governmental crackdown has included the detention of massive numbers of Uyghurs and others into “re-education camps,” where they are compelled to learn “patriotic education” and are subject to widespread abuse.

PEN America has documented various other cases of Uyghur writers, intellectuals, and cultural figures, who have been targeted by the state, including Freedom to Write Award honoree and scholar Ilham Tohti, journalist Gheyret Niyaz, historian Tohti Tunyaz, and researcher and writer Rahile Dawut among others. PEN America additionally analyzed the digital rights situation in Xinjiang in its March 2018 report Forbidden Feeds, and has called the current situation in Xinjiang—where hundreds of thousands of people have been placed in “patriotic re-education camps”—”one of the greatest human rights catastrophes occurring today, with massive implications for the right to free expression.”


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org


Contact: PEN America media consultant Suzanne Trimel, strimel@pen.org