#100PENMembers No. 87: Ahtam Omer

Today’s #100PENMembers is prominent Uyghur writer Ahtam Omer, recently sentenced to twenty years in prison by the authorities of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China.

Image: Uyghur PEN

He is the author of a well-known short story Child of the Eagle and the popular novel Greetings to the Homeland from Distant Horizon, which depicts the author’s first travel abroad and the comparisons that he makes with his homelife. 

He was taken from his home on 12 March 2017, a month after his brother and nephew. The reason given, according to witnesses, was that he had paid for his brother’s son to study in Egypt.

Egypt is one of several countries blacklisted in the XUAR for travel by Uyghurs because of a perceived risk of their coming into contact with and being indoctrinated by Islamic extremists.

He was charged with “separatism” in a secret trial in the Xuar capital, Urumqi in 2018.

In 2020 several of his books – including Child of the Eagle – were burned by authorities. According to an RSA report ‘The story was initially published in China Ethnicities Literature, a national journal, and long stayed far away from any official criticism as a result. However, by 2017, as a wave of “looking to the past” had begun in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), including in the field of literature, a number of books were rounded up under accusations that they contained separatist content.’

The book had a significant impact on Uyghur society because of its focus on the themes of freedom and the spirit of struggle.

Omer’s arrest took place at the same time as authorities in the region began to detain an estimated 1.8 million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in vast internment counts. The Chinese government has denied the existence of camps, then, in 2019, began to refer to them as boarding schools designed to provide vocational training and discourage radicalisation of these Muslim Chinese citizens. 

Uyghur PEN is campaigning for Omer’s release and the release of other Uyghur writers facing persecution for their work but also for their religion and ethnicity.

Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee said: ‘The suppression of human rights in Xinjiang is a colossal tragedy, encompassing the entire range of human rights. The arbitrariness, the secrecy, the unjustness, and the pitiless cruelty of the state has been consistent. The lack of access to information only compounds the tragedy. We wish we could have expressed our outrage earlier. Ahmetjan Juma and Ahtam Omer should not have been jailed at all; and yet they have spent months under incarceration. Such perverse sentencing must stop, as should all the repression the Uyghurs are facing.’

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