The Chinese government has denied details of a Globe and Mail story about the death of the Uyghur writer Nurmuhemmet Tohti while acknowledging that his movements were restricted and that he was placed under surveillance.
The Globe reported this week on relatives of Mr. Tohti living in Calgary who say they are anguished after learning from family in China that the 70-year-old died after his release from several months in custody last winter.
In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, the Chinese embassy denied that Mr. Tohti had been arrested and detained in a camp. Instead, the statement said, Mr. Tohti “was asked to live at a designated place under surveillance by local public security.”
That period of surveillance and restriction, which lasted from Dec. 14 to March 10, was mandated because Mr. Tohti had been participating in “illegal religious activities,” the embassy said, without going into further details.
“We know the Chinese embassy is lying,” Mr. Tohti’s grandson in Calgary, Babur Ilchi, said in a statement. “They have called the concentration camps in East Turkestan ‘vocational schools’ and the internment of over one million Uyghurs a ‘counter-terrorist operation.’ … This is nothing more than a shameful act by China to try and minimize their actions.”
A member of a Turkic ethnic group, Mr. Tohti lived in the western China region known as Xinjiang, which some Uyghurs prefer calling East Turkestan. Human-rights groups have raised concerns about the way Chinese authorities have treated Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, saying that hundreds of thousands have been detained in indoctrination camps.
Relatives of Mr. Tohti say that he had long suffered from diabetes and cardiac disease. They say being in custody was fatal to his health. The embassy statement underlined that Mr. Tohti had suffered from heart problems for more than 20 years. It said he had a heart attack at home on May 31 and died on the way to hospital.
The statement then added: “By the way, Mr. Tohti’s novels mentioned by The Globe and Mail actually lean toward extremism in some parts.”
According to the exiled Uyghur linguist Abduweli Ayup, Mr. Tohti is a prominent writer in his community whose work mentioned some of the contemporary problems faced by Uyghurs such as corruption and the impact of the arrival of ethnic Chinese settlers in Xinjiang.
The embassy statement said there are no indoctrination camps in Xinjiang but rather vocational centres that have been effective in countering terrorism and radicalization. “No terrorist attacks happened in Xinjiang over last three years,” the statement said.
The statement accused The Globe of “hyping up” Mr. Tohti’s death. “By fabricating stories and adopting a double standard, some international anti-China forces wantonly hype up and distort the Xinjiang related issue with sinister intentions.”
Earlier this year, The Globe reported on seven ethnic Chinese-born Kazakhs who had spent some time in indoctrination and detention centres in Xinjiang.
Some described tough treatments such as being held in a small cell, being shackled and shocked with a stun gun. Others spoke of less arduous circumstances while still confined to a compound. They all had to attend classes and religious practice was prohibited.
Some were also imposed conditions that appear similar to what the embassy statement said was Mr. Tohti’s case, some form of house arrest or restrictions of movements.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.