Wednesday, March 12, 2008

China's Muslims Say Charges Are False

By Sonya Bryskine
Mar 11, 2008

Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the Uighur ethnic group in China and a candidate for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

China's latest show-and-tell of its competency to host the 2008 Olympics may have calmed some terror-phobics, but it has sent activists questioning Beijing's human rights record yet again.

On Monday the Chinese Government claimed it had disabled dangerous terrorists, whom, they say, were planning to blow up a passenger plane. The plane en route to Beijing was forced to make an emergency landing on Friday. After two days of silence, officials claimed the alleged terrorists were Uighur Muslims from the northern Xinjiang region.

Uighurs have been pushing for independence from Chinese communist rule for almost six decades and deny any involvement. Meanwhile rights groups say that the Chinese Government has a bad habit of accusation without proof.

"When China has made allegations of terrorist activity, it doesn't back it up with evidence and restrictions, making it impossible for independent investigators to verify," said Mark Allison, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International, in an interview with The Associated Press.

Systematic "cultural genocide"

Since 9/11 it has not been uncommon for countries with Muslim minorities to use "war on terror" as an excuse to alienate them.

Such is the case in Serbia, where Albanians are commonly accused of harbouring terrorist cells. In Russia, it was the Chechens who copped the branding, albeit not entirely without reason. In 2002, Chechen rebels took over 600 people hostage in a Moscow theatre and in 2004 over 300 people died in a bloody Beslan school siege Most of the victims were children.

Reprisals against Uighur Muslims that far pre-date 9/11, have especially intensified in the last six years. And yet, to date there have been no independently verified cases of Uighur-organised terrorist attacks.

"Chinese Government saw 9/11 as a historic opportunity to further justify the persecution of the Uighur people, since we are Muslim," said a famous Uighur activist and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rebiya Kadeer, while speaking at an Amnesty International forum in Sydney.

Mrs Kadeer reveals that on January 18 2008 the Chief Justice of the Xinjiang autonomous region cracked down on Uighurs. Over 15,000 were arrested. And in 2004 China's political secretary, at a security conference, declared that that month he sentenced 55 Uighurs to death for terrorist charges.

Although an imminent terrorist threat in China remains relatively low, particularly when compared to the more vulnerable regions like the UK or the US, the Chinese Government appears to place great emphasis on containing the minority group.

The Associated Press reports that at a recent parliamentary meeting, Wang Lequan, Xinjiang's Communist Party chief, said that authorities would adopt a strike-first policy against the "three evil forces'' of terrorists, separatists and extremists in the region. Systematic "cultural genocide"

Despite the recent escalation of persecution, accounts of repression of the Uighur minority date as far back as 1949, when communists seized power and annexed East Turkestan—now formally known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Pakistan on one side and China on the other.

Home to over 9 million Muslims the area has its own law and is supposed to be exempt from China's constitution. In reality, Uighurs have been forced to abandon their own language, culture and religion—a form of persecution which Mrs Kadeer brands as "cultural genocide".

"Today there is no religious freedom, they cannot enter a mosque or do their prayer. Those who do, are arrested or imprisoned," she said.

Mrs Kadeer describes an environment of state-run oppression which has "reduced the Uighurs to poverty and ignorance."

Since the official ban of the native language in 2003, fewer kids can attend school. Students are forced to learn in Chinese and many teachers have lost their jobs. Women have also been coerced to undergo abortions—part of China's one-child policy—which has left thousands physically or psychologically traumatised.

While most in the West have heard of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when thousands of students were crushed for attempting to call for democratic rule in China, few would know of the Gulja Massacre that took place eight years later.

In 1997 an unknown number of mainly Uighur youths were killed, 8000 disappeared and around 50,000 detained or abused, for seeking to peacefully end the continuing oppression in East Turkestan.

"For the last 58 years basically any Uighur who spoke, wrote or said anything against the Chinese Government, one way or another, directly or indirectly, through phone, books or what ever else, were labeled as separatists [and] tortured by the Chinese Government," said Mrs Kadeer, who spent six years in a Chinese prison for trying to send a few newspaper clippings to her husband in the US.

She was released in 2005 under pressure from the US Congress and human rights organizations. Once the eleventh-richest person in China and owner of a department store empire, Mrs Kadeer now lives in exile in the US. She travels the world and has become the voice for the Uighur people.

But even for Mrs Kadeer international travel is becoming increasingly difficult.

"Chinese Government has a habit of preventing me from any kind of international visits, saying that I am an international terrorist," she said.

Ironically, despite being surrounded by other Muslim countries the only support received by East Turkestan comes from Western democratic nations, says Mrs Kadeer.

"Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and all the other Muslim countries they eagerly deport Uighurs back to China to please the Chinese Government. Once deported they either disappear or are executed".

And while the fight for freedom continues, it is the upcoming Olympic Games that many place their hopes on for change.

"The Olympic Games symbolize peace, freedom, harmony and compassion for fellow human beings…if they are going to host the Games, then this is the opportunity to show the world they are going to give the rights to the minorities living in China—the Tibetans, the Mongols, the Manchu and the Uighurs," said Kuranda Seyit, Executive Director of the forum on Australia's Islamic Relations.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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