Oct 26, 2006

East Turkestan: Woman Champions Rights for Ethnic Minority in China

Rebiya Kadeer is a member of the Uighurs minority, after six years of imprisonment she is still paying a price for reporting human rights violations.

Rebiya Kadeer is a former delegate to the Chinese National People's Congress and a member of the country's large Turkic minority group known as the Uighurs. Last year, after six years of imprisonment in China, she was exiled to the United States but is still paying a price for reporting human rights violations committed by Chinese authorities against her people.

The human rights group Amnesty International, says the approximately 10 million Uighurs, a mainly Muslim minority living in northwestern China, have been targeted for repression and persecution. T. Kumar, a spokesman for Amnesty International, says Uighurs are not allowed to practice their religion freely. He adds Amnesty International has documented numerous abuses including "a special type of torture, imprisonment of thousands of political prisoners," even execution. "Uighurs are the only people in China executed for political reasons, the only cases in China," Kumar states.

Kumar says Uighurs are being singled out "because the Chinese fear that they are demanding independence and that they may split away from the country." He notes, "There are large resources in that part of the country, oil and natural gas. And also, the Chinese test nuclear weapons in that particular province." Kumar says, the mindset of the Chinese government is, "'Why not keep it?' And the Uighurs are different. Totally different from mainstream Chinese, religious-wise, language, culture. They're not part of the mainstream population."

Kumar says few people around the world would know what's happening to the Uighurs if it weren't for a 59-year old mother of 11 children who served as a representative in the National People's Congress, Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.

In 1999, Kadeer started speaking out in protest and was arrested, imprisoned, then exiled last year to the United States. T. Kumar of Amnesty International says, that during her imprisonment, his group adopted her as a prisoner of conscience. "Through her case, we were able to tell the story of the Uighurs. We educated the international community about who these people are and why they're being persecuted. Basically, she became a symbol of the persecution of Uighurs," Kumar says.

Chinese authorities still hold four of Kadeer's children in custody and reportedly have threatened to harm them if she continues to speak out. But that hasn't silenced her. Rebiya Kadeer has been on a speaking tour throughout the west to tell the Uighurs' story and recently spoke by phone with the Voice of America.

She says the Chinese government has used the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the United States by radical Islamic terrorists as a pretext for a crackdown on the Muslim Uighurs. "In the past, the Chinese government charged Uighurs with separatism, split-ism, nationalism, and counter-revolutionary charges to basically arrest them, put them in prison and execute them," Kadeer says. "After the 9/11 tragedy, overnight, the Chinese government claimed the Uighurs are terrorists and began to harass a lot of Uighurs and execute them. Since Uighurs are Muslims, the Chinese government began to use 9/11 as a pretext to persecute the Uighur people."

Kadeer says she believes the Chinese government can be persuaded to stop the human rights abuses, though the odds appear to be against her and the Uighur people. "I know my task is very huge and difficult, and I know China is very powerful. But I do believe that truth and justice and all the freedom-loving and human-rights-caring people are with me. So that's why I'm not afraid," she says. "At the same time, I do believe the Chinese government will change its repressive ways. I would like to call on the Chinese government to immediately end the harsh repression of all the Uighur people, and release all political prisoners, including my own sons. China should stop the cultural genocide of the Uighur people and give them their freedom."

Although she is now living in the United States, Rebiya Kadeer has not escaped the harassment of Chinese authorities herself. Earlier this month, The Washington Post newspaper reported that Kadeer had been secretly videotaped at her home near the nation's capital by Chinese government agents. Kadeer contacted her elected representative, U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, who enlisted the aid of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Wolf has confirmed that the FBI identified the suspects as Chinese government agents.

Telephone calls for comment from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington, D.C., were not returned.

Kadeer and the Uighurs' story is the subject of a book scheduled for publication next year, titled A Woman's Struggle against the Dragon