Sep 10, 2006

East Turkestan: From Unknown to Nobel Nominee

Rebiya Kadeer, 58, an ethnic Uighur jailed for more than five years in China for providing state secrets has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
China counted on Rebiya Kadeer, a Muslim businesswoman-turned-activist, fading into political irrelevance like most exiled Chinese dissidents when she left for the United States last year. But it may have miscalculated.

Kadeer, 58, an ethnic Uighur jailed for more than five years in China for providing state secrets to foreigners before her exile, won a Rafto Prize for human rights in Norway in 2004 and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

"Rebiya Kadeer champions the rights of western China's Uighur ethnic group and is one of China's most prominent advocates of women's rights," Annelie Enochson, a Swedish parliamentarian, wrote in nominating Kadeer for the prestigious Nobel award.

"Kadeer has also used her resources as founder and director of a large trading company in northwestern China to provide fellow Uighurs with training and employment," Enochson wrote in the nomination, a copy of which was sent to Reuters by e-mail.

This year's winner is due to be announced in Oslo on October 13. Kadeer is probably only one of many nominees as any member of parliament worldwide can put forward a name.

Four Rafto laureates have gone on to win the Nobel prize. Only 12 women have won since 1901, upsetting many feminists.

The director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, said in 2001 the committee should "sooner rather than later" speak out about the lack of democratic rights in China. He said China was the main exception to a global move to democracy.


Tibet's god-king, the Dalai Lama, won the Nobel prize in 1989, almost 40 years after Chinese troops marched into his homeland. He fled to India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese Communist rule.

Kadeer, a one-time laundress, was little known outside China before her exile but a win would raise the profile of militant Uighurs' hitherto faceless movement to make the restive region of Xinjiang an independent state called East Turkestan.

"Rebiya has undisputed legitimacy and the capacity of uniting Uighurs in exile," said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher in Hong Kong for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Kadeer, president of the Uighur American Association, is tipped to be elected president of the World Uighur Congress in October, a source close to her said.

Her biography in German, "A Woman's Struggle against the Dragon," will be published next year.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the nomination but denounced Kadeer for "frequently engaging in anti-Chinese splittist activities."

"This kind of person is not qualified to represent Chinese Uighurs," the ministry spokesman's office said in a statement.

China keeps a tight grip on oil-rich Xinjiang, which shares borders with three former Soviet Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and Mongolia.

China calls Uighur militants terrorists and blames them for a string of bombings and assassinations in the 1990s.

But human rights groups say China has used its support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism to justify a wider crackdown on Uighurs, including arbitrary arrests, closed-door trials and use of the death penalty.

Kadeer was once a member of the top advisory body to China's parliament but fell from grace and was arrested in 1999 while on her way to meet U.S. congressmen visiting Xinjiang.

Her assets were worth 270 million yuan ($33.8 million) at the time of her arrest but her trading firm and other businesses in real estate are now almost bankrupt due to official harassment.

She said two of her sons were beaten up by Chinese police when they were detained in June and accused of tax evasion. The whereabouts of a third son who faces subversion charges are unknown and a daughter has been put under house arrest.

"Wang Lequan rushed to arrest my sons but Beijing may not rush to sentence them," Kadeer, a mother of 11, told Reuters by telephone from her office in Washington, referring to Xinjiang's Communist Party chief. She insisted her children were innocent.

Kadeer pledged to champion the rights of Uighur women and children at any cost, lamenting that many girls ended up working as prostitutes in Chinese cities and boys became thieves or pickpockets.

"I'm ready to pay the price," she said. "The more the Chinese government tries to destroy me, the more respect and influence I will have from my people."