2010 -- the Uyghur Human Rights Year in Review

Although 2010 brought the reestablishment of Internet and international communications, there were few indications that the economic and social issues underlying the 2009 unrest were being addressed.
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At the conclusion of 2009, the outlook for Uyghur human rights looked very bleak indeed. In December of that year, 20 Uyghur asylum seekers were deported from Cambodia under intense Chinese pressure. The deportation capped off a year of human rights reversals in East Turkestan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) that stemmed from an outbreak of unrest in the regional capital of Urumchi on July 5. In the following months mass detentions, reports of torture, enforced disappearances, trials that fell short of international standards and swift executions marked a period of extreme difficulty for the Uyghur people. Although 2010 brought the reestablishment of Internet and international communications, as well as the removal of the unpopular Party Secretary Wang Lequan, there were few indications that the economic and social issues underlying the 2009 unrest were being addressed.

2010 began with an announcement on January 13 of a near doubling of the security budget for East Turkestan that underscored Chinese government approaches to establishing stability in the region. The emphasis on security and punishment was exemplified by reports later in January that four Uyghurs had been sentenced to death in connection with the 2009 unrest. Human Rights Watch called trials related to the unrest conducted in 2009 as lacking "due process". January also witnessed tighter restrictions on cell phone use, with three cell phone users in the region punished by public security officials for sending text messages containing harmful information and affecting ethnic unity.

In February, Switzerland granted asylum to two Uyghur brothers detained in Guantánamo. Palau authorities had offered one of the brothers, Bahtiyar Mahmud, the opportunity to settle in Palau together with a group of other Uyghur detainees in 2009, but Bahtiyar rejected the offer. He opted to stay behind to look after his older brother Arkin, who suffered from mental illness and who was not given the choice of settling in Palau. At the time of writing, five of the original 22 Uyghurs remain in the U.S. detention facility. Five Uyghurs were released into Albania in 2006, four to Bermuda in June 2009 and six to Palau in October 2009. The two brothers arrived in Switzerland on March 23, 2010.

April saw the removal of Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan. Long reviled by many Uyghurs, Wang Lequan lost the confidence of a number of Han Chinese in the region due to mishandling of the 2009 unrest, as well as growing displeasure over his nepotistic business and political practices. Wang was known both for using his leadership post to ensure the business success of his friends in the 'Shandong clique', and also for appointing cadres from his home province of Shandong to top government positions throughout East Turkestan. During his fifteen-year spell as party secretary, he oversaw a hardening of regional policies that were seen as a break with the relative openness of the 1980s. 57-year-old Zhang Chunxian, formerly the Communist Party Secretary of Hunan Province, was appointed to replace Wang.

The following month was marked by a restoration of Internet access, which had been blocked since the July 5, 2009 unrest. Largely viewed as a goodwill gesture by new Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian, the lifting of restrictions occurred against a backdrop of detentions of Uyghur journalists and bloggers. Among those detained were Memetjan Abdulla, a 33-year-old journalist with China National Radio; Gheyret Niyaz, a journalist who was detained after talking to foreign media about the unrest; Dilshat Parhat, who co-founded the Uyghur-run website Diyarim; Obulkasim, an employee of Diyarim; Nureli, who founded the Uyghur website Selkin; and website supervisor Muhemmet.

The first ever Xinjiang Work Forum, which was convened in May and attended by all of China's central leadership, appeared to be a tacit admission that economic policies had fallen short of bringing either stability or equity to the region. The fine point put on economic issues during the Work Forum signaled the nature of tensions underlying the July 5, 2009 unrest. The term 'Development by Leaps and Bounds' was coined to summarize the significant financial boost to the region, and the total aid package promised by the government between 2011 and 2020 would reach US$314 billion, while policies also promised to create more jobs and to eliminate absolute poverty by 2020. However, participatory mechanisms for Uyghur stakeholders, and an independent monitoring body, were both absent from development planning. The post Work Forum drive for modernization also witnessed an intensification of demolitions in Uyghur neighborhoods across the region. Demolitions were reported in Ghulja, Kashgar, Karamay and Urumchi.

On the one-year anniversary of the 2009 unrest, the Uyghur Human Rights Project and Amnesty International issued reports that described eyewitness accounts of deadly live fire used against Uyghur demonstrators. These claims are at odds with Chinese government claims that security forces used live fire to disperse Uyghurs by firing into the air, or to shoot Uyghurs in targeted situations that resulted in only 12 deaths. The end of July further illustrated the Chinese government's hardening attitude to competing narratives of the unrest with the harsh sentencing of Gheyret Niyaz, Dilshat Perhat, Nureli and Nijat Azat, webmaster of the website Shabnam. Gheyret Niyaz's sentence of 15 years in prison on charges of endangering state security shocked many observers. In China, a group of scholars and lawyers issued a letter of concern. The letter, which was signed by Beijing scholar and author Wang Lixiong, Beijing scholar Mao Yushi, and Beijing scholar Cui Weiping, among others, points out that Gheyret Niyaz had "promoted increasing mutual understanding between Uyghurs and Han" and went on to state that "this kind of intellectual is extremely important in advancing communication and reconciliation between ethnic groups." In addition, the life sentence handed down to Gulmire Imin, who worked on the Selkin website, was received with dismay.

The decision by the Nobel Committee in October to award the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo also had resonances for the reconciliation of Uyghurs and Han Chinese. As co-author of Charter '08, Liu was one of a group of prominent Chinese activists, lawyers and writers advocating for a federal China as a solution to ethnic autonomy issues. In November, the firing of Uyghur teachers in Toksun County reignited the sensitive issue of 'bilingual education' implementation in the region. Bilingual education policies have overseen the removal of Uyghur as a language of instruction in schools and universities across the region in favor of Mandarin Chinese. Radio Free Asia interviewed Uyghur teachers in Toksun County affected by local officials' plans to fire 518 out of nearly 2,000 teachers in the county. A day before the announcement, Sharapet Tursun, chief of Toksun County's educational bureau, told principals of local Uyghur schools at a meeting that the 518 layoffs were required in order to abide by a directive on bilingual education issued in October by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government. Tursun requested that each school in Toksun County conduct Chinese language proficiency exams prior to November 8 in order to determine which 518 teachers to layoff.

In December, human rights activists marked the one-year anniversary of the December 19, 2009 deportation from Cambodia of 20 Uyghur asylum seekers. Since the deportation nothing has been heard about the fate of the 20 Uyghurs. The anniversary not only brought to attention to the cycles of human rights activism, but also to the cycles of Uyghur protest and repression. The fall out from the Urumchi unrest has left its mark long past July 2009. The Uyghur asylum seekers in Cambodia, who had fled the post July 5 repression, represented one in a long line of consequences emerging from the 2009 unrest. Looking back over 2010, many of the incidents in the Uyghur human rights year stemmed from the summer of 2009. The effects of the July 2009 unrest reach into the present, and will most likely reach into 2011; however, looking back over 2010, the very promising genuine concern and dialogue built with a growing number of Han Chinese hold the seeds for a meaningful solution to Uyghur issues.

Note: Since the writing of this article, Memetjan Abdulla was sentenced to life imprisonment. In addition, Pezilet Ekber, a 19-year-old student at Xinjiang University was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for participating in the Urumchi unrest. Radio Free Asia reported that the trials for Memetjan Abdulla and Pezilet Ekber took place in April 2010.

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