China: Uyghur Imam, 96, Dies In Prison


By Shöhret

A 96-year-old Uyghur religious leader who was arrested in 2017 has died in prison, and authorities did not turn his body over to his family, his granddaughter told Radio Free Asia.

Abidin Damollam was an imam who served in a mosque in Qayraq village in Atush (in Chinese Atushi), the capital of the Qizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Xinjiang.

He was arrested in June 2017 on charges of “promoting religious extremism” and sentenced to nine years in prison. 

His granddaughter Mariya Muhemmed, who lives in the United States, told RFA Uyghur that Damollam passed away on Feb. 5 inside Atush’s Aghu prison. 

“Our grandfather was the imam of a mosque in Qayraq for 30 years and educated children in religion,” she said. 

“In May 2017, he was arrested and has been serving in a large prison in Aghu, where they detain political prisoners. Many people are there,” she said. “Our grandpa passed away there and his body was not returned to the family.”

Imams in Xinjiang are appointed by the Chinese government, and part of their duties are to provide religious instruction to students with government approval. Therefore, Damollam was arrested for doing what the government appointed him to do, his family said.

According to Muhemmed, prison authorities froze Damollam’s body and two days later transferred it to the Atush Police Department who buried him in a cemetery instead of returning the body to the family. 

RFA attempted to verify the circumstances of Damollam’s passing and burial with relevant authorities.

An officer at the Suntagh police station did not have any knowledge of Damollam, saying that there were “several thousand people with the same name.”

An officer from the Justice Department of Qizilsu Prefecture confirmed the recent passing of Abidin Damollam, mentioning him among the other religious figures arrested.

“I think I heard of his name. Let me look at the list. Yes, he is in the list,” she said. “He passed away at the beginning of this month. He was serving in Aghu prison in Atush.”

An officer from the Atush City Police Department confirmed the circumstances of Damollam’s passing. 

“Yes, there is someone called Abidin Damollam with 11 children,” he said. “From what I heard he passed away in prison. He has been imprisoned since 2017 but I don’t know which prison. His frozen body was returned about 10-15 days ago.”

An officer from the Aghu Police Station confirmed that Abidin Damollam passed away at the Aghu Prison of Atush but could not explain as to why the authorities did not hand over the body to his family.

“We don’t know how he passed. They only said that it was due to illness,” he said. “I’m not able to answer further questions. It is true that the body was given to us, not to the family.”

The political director of the same police station intervened in the call and stated that the information was “confidential,” refusing to provide further details over the phone.

Damollam had been a target of authorities during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and had to endure public humiliation in the era’s notorious struggle sessions multiple times. 

He was also detained several times in the 1990s whenever there was political unrest in the region, his family said, but they were not able to confirm how many times or for what reasons he was detained.


Radio Free Asia’s mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press. Content used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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