The reported execution of an alleged Uighur “separatist” in China’s Xinjiang province is adding to concern by human rights groups that Beijing is taking advantage of the ongoing “war on terrorism” to crack down on the predominantly Muslim indigenous population in its westernmost territory.
Kuerban Tudaji was reportedly sentenced to death on June 30 after his conviction for “manufacturing explosives, firearms and ammunition” as part of an effort to “split the country” and “organize terrorist training” between 1998 and 2000.
Amnesty International, which only last week issued a major report on the situation in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), as the province is known formally, condemned the reported execution, suggesting that the defendant may not have received a fair trial and appealing for the authorities to make public the evidence it presented against him.
Amnesty charged in its report released last Wednesday that tens of thousands of people in XUAR have been detained since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against New York and the Pentagon. After the attacks, Beijing swiftly pledged its cooperation in the “war on terror” and intensified its crackdown against the Uighur population of about seven million.
“China has repackaged its repression of Uighurs as a fight against ‘terrorism,'” Amnesty said in its latest report. “Since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the USA, the Chinese government has been using ‘anti-terrorism’ as a pretext to increase its crackdown on all forms of political or religious dissent in the region.” It noted that the crackdown has continued despite the fact that the head of XUAR’s government admitted last April that “not one incident of explosion or assassination took place [there] in the last few years.”
It also noted that many Uighurs have fled to neighboring countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Nepal and Pakistan but have been forcibly repatriated as a result of Chinese pressure on the host governments. In one recent case, an exile was executed after being returned from Nepal even though he had been accorded official refugee status by the UN High Commission for Refugees and was awaiting resettlement to a third country at the time of his arrest by Nepali authorities and subsequent return to China.
At least 22 Uighur prisoners captured in Afghanistan during and after the U.S.-led military campaign in 2001 are among the 595 detainees being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Bush administration, which, according to some reports, permitted Chinese officials to interrogate the detainees in 2002, has ruled out repatriating them on the grounds that they may be subject to torture or execution. Amnesty said it had received reports that the prisoners were subjected to “stress and duress” techniques and sleep deprivation during the interrogation, but this account has not been confirmed.
Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who only came under China’s rule in the mid-19th century, still refer to their territory as East Turkestan. Fifty years ago, they made up more than 80 percent of the population, but steady ethnic-Han Chinese immigration, encouraged by Beijing and spurred by oil production and growing links with Central Asia, has brought their percentage down to less than half.
Tensions, fueled by racial discrimination against the Uighurs in both education and employment, have risen steadily since the late 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent creation of Central Asian states ethnically related to the Uighurs sparked a wave of nationalism among the Uighurs that has become more powerful over the past decade. In 1997, a Uighur demonstration in Yining erupted into a riot in which nine people were killed.
In addition to detaining tens of thousands of Uighurs the vast majority of whom are believed never to have used or advocated violence the government has shut down a number of mosques and banned some religious schools and practices.
Islamic clergy, for example, have been subjected to “political education” designed to give them “a clearer understanding of the party’s ethnic and religious policies,” while some clerics have been detained for teaching the Koran.
In addition to the restrictions on religious schools and mosques, tens of thousands of Uighur books have reportedly been banned and burned, while Uighur has been banned as a language in which courses can be taught for most subjects in Xinjiang University.
“At current levels of repression, the space for independent expression of Uighur cultural or religious identity is narrowing dangerously,” Amnesty said.
The most famous of the prisoners is Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman and mother of 11 whose accomplishments were promoted by the government through much of the 1990s as a model for the country as a whole. In 2000, however, she was sentenced in a secret trial to eight years in prison for “providing secret information to foreigners.” In fact, the information she was charged with providing were newspaper articles sent from her to her husband who had moved to the United States after serving a sentence for a political crime in China. Washington has long called for her release, and, while her sentenced was reduced by one year in March, her imprisonment continues.
The report that Uighurs are currently suffering high rates of unemployment in their homeland, largely due to the influx of Han Chinese into the region. Han Chinese also reportedly are buying up property, forcing Uighurs from their land.