New legislation passed by the government in Xinjiang, such as the anti-terror law and the national security law, have restricted the Uyghur community’s religious and cultural freedom now more than ever before, Dolkun Isa, the Uyghur activist granted a visa by India, has said.
Isa, branded a terrorist by China and wanted in Beijing on terror charges, is expected to go to India later this month to attend a conference in Dharamsala on democracy and China.
He said under the current dispensation, any form of defiance of the government “can have you arrested on charges of separatism”.
Reacting to India’s move, China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that Isa was “a terrorist on red notice of Interpol and the Chinese police. Bringing him to justice is a due obligation of relevant countries.”
Whether India gave the visa as a retaliatory measure for China’s blocking of New Delhi’s move in the UN to designate Pathankot attack mastermind Masood Azhar as a terrorist, is a matter of interpretation. But the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and rights activists are baffled at the comparison between Isa and Azhar, calling the former a “peace activist”.
So, what is the situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the biggest province in China, and the most restive?
Though 2009 possibly saw the worst riots in the region in recent history, it has seen frequent violence since; some of it has spilled out too, in Beijing and in Kunming in the southwest.
Ten days ago, the XUAR government offered cash rewards to the public for up to 5 million Yuan ($774,000) for information on terrorism in the region.
“Those who provide police with significant information on planned attacks, hijacking, assassinations, poisoning, blasts or sabotage of key infrastructure facilities, can get 200,000 yuan to 5 million Yuan,” a government statement said.
“It is very hard to tell how many Uyghurs are in detention in East Turkestan (which is what Uyghur activists call XUAR) though it is clear that the number is disproportionate to the population in East Turkestan. Many are now jailed on charges of “illegal religious activities” (e.g. religious practice outside state sanctioned mosques) or on charges of endangering state security,” Isa told HT over email.
“Many Uyghurs have been given death sentences over the years, with close to a 100% conviction rate. In 2014, at least 36 Uyghurs were sentenced to death in East Turkestan,” he said.
Hundreds have been killed in the violence but clear statistics are shrouded in censorship. Journalists are not barred from visiting the region.
But local authorities can stop anyone from entering any locality if they so wish. Independent verification of news coming out of the region is difficult because of a government clampdown on information.
Last December, China effectively expelled French journalist Ursula Gauthier from the magazine L’Obs after she wrote an article on the situation in the region.
Isa added: “Since 2003, 11 Uyghurs were listed as “terrorists” as well as 4 organizations (including the WUC). Additionally, Uyghurs in East Turkestan have been very often labelled as “terrorists” for ostensible crimes (especially since 9/11), but this information is much more difficult to obtain”.
The Chinese foreign ministry is yet to respond to a set of questions emailed by HT.