Uyghur Human Rights Project Petitions China to Free Political Prisoners

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(Above: Uyghurs protest at the Embassy of China in Washington, DC on February 5, 2016)

Uyghurs across the world, except in China, joined in protest on February 5, 2016, to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Ghulja massacre. The incident took place in the city of Ghulja, near the Kazakh border in the northwestern part of East Turkestan, the Uyghur homeland which is situated in northwestern China. On February 5, 1997, Uyghurs in Ghulja organized a peaceful protest against religious restrictions enacted by the Chinese state. Chinese police violently put down their protest. Shockingly, authorities penned demonstrators into a stadium and hosed them with water, causing frostbite. The winter chill in Washington, DC reminded those activists who assembled of this painful past.

China's crackdown on Uyghurs in Ghulja after the 1997 incident utilized arbitrary imprisonment, torture in detention, and unfair trials, based on reports from human rights groups; and several Uyghurs were executed for their alleged role in the protests. In addition, China strictly embargoed any information about the incident, prosecuting rights defenders who attempted to investigate, which has clearly emerged as the state's standard response to incidents in East Turkestan since. Nearly two decades later, Uyghurs continue to call for an independent investigation, and seek an accounting for the Uyghurs killed, arrested and disappeared.

Abdurazzak Shamseden is an innocent man who found himself swept up in the aftermath of the Ghulja massacre. He was detained not for participation in the demonstration itself; rather, after his nephew was killed in a skirmish with police, Abdurazzak was detained in reprisal for his tragic family connection. A young farmer awaiting marriage and in the prime of his life, Abdurazzak was sentenced to life imprisonment. On Human Rights Day last December, the Washington, DC-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) launched a petition to release eight political prisoners, including Abdurazzak. Abdurazzak's sister works for UHRP, fighting tirelessly to defend her people's human rights and protect other families targeted by the Chinese state like her own.

UHRP's petition has achieved some success already. Chinese authorities announced in February 2016 that Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur political prisoner who has been held in prison for a decade in spite of his Canadian citizenship, will have his 15-year sentence commuted by 6 months. State media withheld further details, which fits the Chinese state's non-transparent approach to nearly all of the prisoners in the petition. Nor is the reduction a result of an appeal or judicial procedure, highlighting the weakness of China's rule of law. It is thus a bittersweet celebration. Advocacy on his behalf is more critical now than ever.

Celil, a preacher imprisoned for purely political reasons, was convicted as part of China's anti-terrorism campaign, which Chinese authorities codified into new legislation in 2016, with possibly devastating consequences for Uyghurs. A recent UHRP report examines the law's potential to lead to human rights abuses. UHRP Director, Alim Seytoff said: "The law will not ensure the security of the people of East Turkestan and will only increase tensions through the criminalization of legitimate activities. It will serve to further alienate and marginalize the Uyghurs. I fear the region is headed toward a descent into further repression. That the Chinese government is preparing for these human rights abuses to happen in an information void is even more disturbing."

The information void enforced by the law refers to criminalization of information related to "terrorism," which the legislation loosely defines to include any anti-state activities. China has a history of using anti-state charges to crackdown on free speech and rights related reporting. In fact, five of the political prisoners included in UHRP's petition were journalists or citizen journalists. China handed its harshest sentence of all to Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur scholar who ran a Mandarin language website to promote dialogue between Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China) and Uyghurs. In 2014, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment and seven volunteers for the site were also imprisoned for 3-8 years, including three in the petition: Mutellip Imin, Atikem Rozi and Akbar Imin.

Journalist Gheyret Niyaz, another petition case, was also imprisoned simply for running a website. Niyaz was rounded up after unrest in East Turkestan in July 2009. Uyghurs in Urumchi, the regional capital, assembled on July 5, 2009 to call for an investigation into the murders of several Uyghur factory workers in the Pearl River Delta region. Police cracked down on the protest, and once again, the state responded with extrajudicial killings and widespread disappearances, which have been documented by human rights groups. As in the 1997 Ghulja incident, the total numbers of Uyghurs killed and imprisoned in the July 5, 2009 unrest is unknown.

In another parallel to Ghulja, the state cracked down on information in 2009, imprisoning Niyaz and other Uyghurs who ran websites which had been used to organize the peaceful demonstration. Not only were nearly all Uyghur websites permanently wiped from the Internet in this crackdown, but online access was disabled in the entire Uyghur region for 10 months. July 5 marks another date memorialized by the Uyghur diaspora, who call on the Chinese state to account for Uyghurs who were killed, arrested or disappeared.

China's state also stands to use its counterterrorism legislation to criminalize traditional Uyghur culture, a trend apparent in the case of Merdan Seyitakhun, a final UHRP petition case. He was imprisoned in 2008 for teaching religion to Uyghur children without state sanction. China classifies any religious education for Uyghurs outside of the state's purview as "religious extremism," which therefore falls under its counter-terror umbrella. The Uyghurs' Muslim faith is a key aspect of their culture, and preventing its transmission to the younger generation imperils the very fabric of the Uyghur identity.

Signing UHRP's petition will send China's government a message that these eight prisoners of conscience have not been forgotten by the international community. Even as China's counter-terrorism legislation threatens to further criminalize Uyghurs' traditional culture and prevent any investigation into human rights abuses perpetrated by China's state, UHRP's petition will send a signal to China to release these prisoners of conscience and desist its unfair treatment of Uyghurs under the new law.

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UHRP Uyghur Political Prisoners Petition