Rahile Dawut was convicted on charges of endangering state security in a secret trial, US-based foundation says.

A prominent Uighur scholar specialising in the study of her people’s folklore and traditions has been sentenced to life in prison.

Rahile Dawut was convicted on charges of endangering state security in December 2018 in a secret trial, the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation said in a statement on Thursday. Dawut appealed but her conviction was upheld.

“The sentencing of Professor Rahile Dawut to life in prison is a cruel tragedy, a great loss for the Uighur people, and for all who treasure academic freedom,” said John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation.

Dawut was a professor at Xinjiang University and founder of the school’s Ethnic Minorities Folklore Research Center. She disappeared in late 2017 during a government crackdown aimed at the Uighurs, a Turkic, predominately Muslim ethnicity native to China’s northwest Xinjiang region.

For years, her exact status was unknown as Chinese authorities did not disclose her whereabouts or the nature of the charges against her. That changed this month when the Dui Hua Foundation saw a Chinese government document disclosing that Dawut was sentenced to life in prison.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning said she had “no information” on Dawut’s case at a regular press briefing on Friday, but added China would “handle cases in accordance with the law”.

Erasing Uighur culture

Dawut was internationally renowned for her work studying sacred Islamic sites and Uighur cultural practices in Xinjiang and across Central Asia, authoring many articles and books and lecturing as a visiting scholar abroad, including at Cambridge and the University of Pennsylvania.

She is one of more than 400 prominent academics, writers, performers and artists detained in Xinjiang, advocacy groups say. Critics say the government has targeted intellectuals as a way to dilute, or even erase, Uighur culture, language and identity.

“Most prominent Uighur intellectuals have been arrested. They’ve been indiscriminate,” said Joshua Freeman, an Academia Sinica researcher who used to work as a translator for Dawut.

“I don’t think it is anything about her work that got her in trouble. I think what got her in trouble was that she was born a Uighur.”

‘Guardian of Uighur identity’

News of her life sentence shocked Freeman and other academics in Uighur studies, as Dawut did not engage in activities opposing the Chinese government. Dawut was a member of the Chinese Communist Party and received grants and awards from the Chinese Ministry of Culture before her arrest.

Dawut’s daughter, Akeda Pulati, said she was stunned by the news and called on the Chinese authorities to release her mother.

“I know the Chinese government is torturing and persecuting the Uighurs. But I didn’t expect them to be that cruel, to give my innocent mother a life sentence,” Pulati said. “Their cruelty is beyond my imagination.”

Pulati called Dawut “the hardest working person I’ve ever met”, saying since she was a child, she had been inspired by her mother’s dedication to her career.

“She’s a very simple person – all she wants in her life is just to find enjoyment in her work and her career and do something good for society, for the people around her,” Pulati said.

Mukaddas Mijit, a Uighur ethnomusicologist based in Brussels, said Dawut had been an important adviser to her and many other scholars early in their careers. Dawut was a critical bridge between global academia and Uighur culture, Mijit said, mentoring a generation of prominent Uighur scholars across the world.

“She was a guardian of Uighur identity, and that’s something the Chinese government is after,” Mijit said. “They want to erase everything, and they want Uighurs to forget how beautiful and colourful a culture they had.”

More than one million Uighur Muslims are estimated to be in detention in “counter-extremism centres” in China’s far western region. Xinjiang has been enveloped in a suffocating blanket of security for years, especially since a deadly antigovernment riot broke out in the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009.

China has defended its actions, saying they are necessary to combat “extremism and terrorism”.

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