2009 will be remembered as a watershed year for the Uyghur people of East Turkestan (a region known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by the Chinese government). The event that defined not only the year, but also the foreseeable future for millions of Uyghurs was the serious unrest in the regional capital of Urumchi. The events beginning on July 5 and their repercussions underscored both the egregious human rights abuses that are endemic in East Turkestan, and the pressing need for meaningful and participatory solutions to the grievances of the Uyghur people. Notable incidents before the Urumchi unrest in 2009 merely illustrated the broad range of Uyghur human rights concerns, such as the demolition of Kashgar Old City, which were contributing factors to mounting tension that contextualize a serious outbreak of social disorder.
2009 began with an alarming January 4 report published in the Procuratorial Daily that arrests on state security charges in East Turkestan numbered 1,300 in 2008. Arrests on these charges in the entire People's Republic of China (PRC) in 2007 only amounted to 742. The spike in arrests represented a concerted effort by Chinese officials, during the year of the Beijing Olympics, to crack down on the "three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism", an effort that was characterized by Xinjiang Party Secretary, Wang Lequan, as a "life or death struggle".
Nonetheless, in February, Uyghur human rights activists were heartened by the variety of issues raised with the PRC government by United Nations (UN) member states during China's Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. In particular, the Czech Republic urged the PRC government to review its laws and procedures with regard to Uyghurs and to end restrictions on Uyghurs' religious practices. February also saw the release of the U.S. State Department's 2008 Human Rights Report, which highlighted "the threat of violence as justification for extreme security measures directed at the local population and visiting foreigners" in East Turkestan.
The following month saw widespread reporting on the demolition of Kashgar Old City. The "residents resettlement project", so called by local authorities, set a goal of relocating nearly 45,000 Uyghur households and of destroying five square kilometers of Old City housing in its first five years. The relocation of Uyghur families, to block-style housing eight kilometers from Kashgar city center, disperses an organic community to a more regimented living arrangement that can be more easily monitored. Coupled with the loss of unique traditional Uyghur architecture, the demolition represented a catastrophe for Uyghur cultural identity and world heritage.
On April 9, two Uyghurs were executed for their alleged role in an August 4, 2008 attack in Kashgar. Abdurahman Azat and Kurbanjan Hemit were executed at an unknown location after the announcement of their impending execution was read out in front of 4,000 officials and Kashgar residents at a local stadium. The details of the August 2008 attack remain unclear and the secrecy surrounding the trial of the two Uyghurs did little to dispel the concerns of human rights activists. While Chinese state media reported that two Uyghurs attacked and killed 16 policemen using a truck, homemade grenades and machetes, a September 28, 2008 New York Times report detailed the eyewitness accounts of three western tourists, who had been staying in a hotel across the street from the events, that contradicted the official Chinese version. World Uyghur Congress (WUC) President, Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, called the executions "a tool of intimidation and fear."
The Third General Assembly of the WUC took place in Washington, DC in May. Activists in the Uyghur Diaspora considered the opening ceremony held in the U.S. Congress a great success. The high profile venue and the speeches made by several members of Congress reaffirmed the WUC's status as the voice of Uyghurs in exile and illustrated the strong support of U.S. legislators for the human rights cause of the Uyghur people. More positive news came in early June when four Uyghurs were released from Guantánamo to Bermuda.
July 5, 2009 and the days that followed witnessed an outbreak of unrest in East Turkestan the scale of which had not been seen since demonstrations took place in Ghulja in February 1997. Official Chinese sources stated that nearly 200 people died as a consequence of the violence that occurred in Urumchi; however, this number has never been independently verified. A number of conflicting accounts exist to explain the outbreak of violence, but the Chinese government's view that Ms. Rebiya Kadeer and the WUC had orchestrated it was widely dismissed as a smokescreen for the likely role of endemic repressive policies toward Uyghurs.
July 5 in Urumchi began with a peaceful protest. The protest was prompted by a June 26 incident in Shaoguan, Guangdong province in which an unknown number of Uyghur workers at a toy factory were killed or injured by Han Chinese after false allegations spread of a rape by Uyghur men of a Han Chinese woman. The aim of the Urumchi protesters was to seek justice for the victims in Shaoguan, to express sympathy with the families of those killed and injured and to seek proper protection and investigation by the Chinese state concerning such racially motivated attacks.
What followed the unrest was predictable. Chinese security forces conducted sweeps of Uyghur neighborhoods in Urumchi, arbitrarily detaining large numbers of Uyghurs in the process. Reports of torture in detention emerged and even harsher state-sponsored repressive policies and acts were justified in the name of state security. In order to control the flow of information in and out of the region, the Chinese government initiated a communications blackout that is still in place more than six months after the unrest.
The Chinese government also pursued Uyghur activists overseas. In September, WUC General Secretary Dolkun Isa was detained at Seoul airport. Isa fled persecution in China in 1997, was given asylum in Germany the same year and became a German citizen in 2006. Since his exile, he has traveled abroad frequently to speak about human rights conditions in East Turkestan; however, in 2003, the Chinese government placed him on a list of wanted terrorists.
In addition, organizers of the July to August Melbourne International Film Festival received a phone call from a Chinese consular official in Melbourne urging them to drop a film about Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, The 10 Conditions of Love. In September, the Taiwanese government publicly stated that a visa would not be issued to Ms. Rebiya Kadeer thereby preventing her attendance at a showing of The 10 Conditions of Love in Taiwan. In justifying the decision, Taiwan's Interior Minister, Chiang Yi-hua, stated that the visit should be banned because it would endanger Taiwan's national interest, public security and social order.
The carefully orchestrated celebrations in Beijing for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC in October were accompanied by a deployment of 130,000 troops to East Turkestan to ensure a strong military presence on the streets of the region's cities. In the same month six Uyghur Guantánamo detainees were released to Palau. Of the original 22 Uyghur Guantánamo detainees seven remain, and on October 20 the U.S. Supreme Court opted to rule on whether the judiciary can decide if Guantánamo detainees can be released into the United States.
On November 2, the official Xinhua news agency reported that police in East Turkestan had launched a "strike hard" campaign to "wipe out lawlessness". Added to the "100-day campaign" launched by Chinese authorities in September to capture alleged suspects in the July events, and the adoption of a law on "national unity" by the regional government in late December, the measure formed part of a series of initiatives to criminalize Uyghur expression and activity.
While President Obama's November visit to China disappointed many Uyghurs due to an absence of a public reference to the on-going crackdown in East Turkestan, the leading role played by the U.S. in preventing the return of 20 Uyghur refugees to China from Cambodia in December displayed the United States' clear concern for the welfare of the Uyghur people. 22 Uyghurs had fled to Cambodia from the fierce crackdown in East Turkestan with the assistance of an underground network organized by Christian missionaries. Under pressure from China, the Cambodian government forcibly returned to China 20 of the Uyghurs despite on-going investigations into their asylum claims by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials in Phnom Penh. There has been no word on the 20 since their return to China. Shortly after the return of the Uyghurs, the Chinese and Cambodian governments signed a 1.2 billion dollar aid and investment package, which both denied was linked to the return of the refugees. Although the forced return caused desperation at the scale of China's reach and influence, the case nevertheless illustrated the depth of support and acknowledgement for Uyghur human rights concerns evidenced in strong statements of condemnation from the United States, UNHCR and European Union.
2009 ended with further dreadful news that five more Uyghurs had been sentenced to death for their alleged role in the July unrest. A number of death sentences for similar charges had been handed down to Uyghurs since October in trials that Human Rights Watch criticized as lacking due process. Reports also emerged that in November, Uyghur prosecutors selected to preside over trials related to the July 5 arrests had been removed because of ethnic bias fears. Also in November, Chinese state media announced the first executions of Uyghurs who were convicted on charges connected to the July 5 unrest. According to reports, the men were not allowed a final visit with family members prior to their execution.
The depressing end to the year makes it very difficult to predict any positives emerging from East Turkestan for 2010. With the PRC government emboldened after its pressure in Cambodia yielded results, coupled with the lack of international calls for fair and open trials for July 5 unrest defendants, a gloomy picture of more detentions, death sentences and executions seems apparent. The Chinese government's continuing justification for this repression on state security grounds shows no sign of abatement and remains constant in the face of changing circumstances. In the past, China justified its repression of the Uyghurs on fears of "splittism", after 9/11, it justified its repression in the context of the war on terror, and in the post-July 5 unrest era, it will prolong the repression on the grounds of stability- all without acknowledging the systemic economic, social and political marginalization of the Uyghur people that has caused so much of the suffering.
In the face of this denial, the role of the international community is therefore vital in securing a future for Uyghurs free of repression. In the context of the increase in newsworthy events regarding Uyghurs, the concerns surrounding Uyghur human rights issues have gained a greater prominence. Should the international community choose to ignore the deterioration of conditions in East Turkestan this would not only affect stability in both China and Central Asia, but it would also open the door to the possibility that China's non-democratic approach to governance will become an attractive model for others to follow.