As It Happens

Daughter of Uighur author says conditions at Chinese 're-education' camp killed her father

Nurmuhammad Tohti died less than two months after he was released from a Chinese detention camp.

Zohra Ilchi says her father Nurmuhammad Tohti was targeted and detained because of his writing

Zohra Ilchi, middle, with her parents Nurmuhammad Tohti, left, and Mahtumhan Kerem, right, in Hotan, Xinjiang province. Ilchi says her father died because of the conditions at a Chinese 're-education' camp where he was detained. (Submitted by Zohra Ilchi)


Nurmuhammad Tohti was one of the most famous writers in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. He wrote novels and non-fiction works about his people, the Uighurs.

In late May, Tohti died — less than two months after he was released from a Chinese detention camp.

The UN says that China may be keeping up to one million Uighurs and other Muslims in so-called "re-education" camps like the one where Tohti was held. 

Tohti's family is tying his death to his treatment in the camp. He had diabetes and a heart condition and his family says he didn't receive his medication while in detention. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Tohti's daughter, Zohra Ilchi, who is living in Calgary. Here is part of their conversation.

Zohra, how did you learn that your father had died?

A friend from the U.S. called me and she told me to check out Facebook and the news was there. 

Why didn't your family tell you? 

Because they couldn't call me. [At the] end of 2017, they sent me a message through [the instant messaging app] WeChat and then they told me not to call anyone that I have known. So since then, I didn't call them and we didn't [have] contact at all with any of my relatives or my parents.

Nurmuhammad Tohti and his partner Mahtumhan Kerem in Calgary. (Submitted by Zohra Ilchi)

But you did call your mother to confirm, didn't you? 

Yes, I did because I have to confirm if the news is true or not. I was devastated, so I called her.

How did she respond when you called her?

She was shocked. 

She's like, "Is it really you? Is it really you?" And I was like, "Yes, mommy, it's me."

Did she explain why she hadn't called you? Did she say anything about it?

She just said, "I couldn't tell you."

What happened the next day after you had called her? What kind of a message did she get?

The next day I just wanted to make sure she's OK.

So I called her and then she said right away that, "After you called yesterday, I got this message that said you have talked to a foreigner or you received a call from a foreign country and it was a dangerous act you did there."

What does that tell you about the conditions for Uighurs in China right now — that your mother feared just receiving a phone call from her daughter confirming that her husband, your father, was dead? 

That tells me that it's very sad there right now. ... They're scared for their own safety and everyone else.

Uighurs and their supporters march in protest to the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations in 2018. (Associated Press/Seth Wenig)

Do you know anything about the conditions that your father was in when he died?

Not really. On the Facebook news [it said] that his body was brought home with cast and chains on his body.

But I asked my mom and she said he was at home and he passed away on the way to the hospital. So I'm not sure which one is the right news, because my mom couldn't tell me anything in detail. 

And you can't even trust that your mother is telling the truth because her life is in danger just for telling you?

Yes. I want to trust her. I want to believe that's the way he passed away. You don't want to think of anyone whose body is brought home in that condition. So I'm going to trust my mom.

But your father had been in one of these detention camps. As far as we understand, one million Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained in this way. Your father was in one of those camps, wasn't he?

Yes, he was in there.

What effect did that have on his health?

It affected him a lot.

He didn't bring any medications or anything to support his health. So he was there, without questioning, for almost three months and then his health got worse and worse and then, I guess, they just let him out. But it was already too late.

And then another thing, I think, that impacts him most is what he has seen in there because the condition is so bad.

He is a man that he can't bare any, any of those kind of abuses — human rights, those kind.

Because he's a writer. He's a person who documents the human condition. So he's witnessing the worst treatment of humans.


And so he was detained from November 2018 until March of this year. But you had a video call with him in May. Is that right? 

Yes. Actually on May 1st,  all of a sudden, they just video called me on WeChat and I was shocked. 

He was just crying and he couldn't say anything. He just waved at us and then he left the scene. He couldn't say anything.

We were crying. He was crying. Everyone in my family was crying. So he just left. We didn't even talk to him.

Can you tell us a bit about your dad? He wrote about the Uighur people. Can you describe his writing for us?

He wrote novellas and then journalistic reports.

One of his famous journalistic reports was a letter from Hotan, the city we lived in. And since then, he was the target of the Chinese government.

The Chinese government says that it is only trying to deal with terrorism and religious extremism. That is what they're trying to stamp out in the province. What does that say that your father was detained in one of those camps?

He is not a terrorist. He's just a writer. That means they don't care if you are terrorist or intellectual people. They don't care who you are. They just took you in. They just took everyone into the camps.

There's no human rights there. They're just corruptive, abusive government there.

Is it possible because he was a writer, because he wrote about human rights, that he was targeted?

Yes, I think so. Yes, that's definitely it.

Written by Allie Jaynes and John McGill. Interview produced by Allie Jaynes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.