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East Turkestan: "Harmonious Society," at What Price?

June 19, 2008

June 18, 2008

Active ImageWith the Olympic torch relay continuing its tour through
East Turkestan it brings suppression of basic human rights, instead
of the spirit of freedom associated with the Olympics.

Below is a press release issued by The Uyghur American Association:

As the Olympic torch passes through East Turkestan (also known as the
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), leaving the regional capital of
Urumchi today [17 June 2008] and arriving tomorrow in the southern
city of Kashgar, the Uyghur American Association laments the
discrepancy between the peace and freedom the torch is meant to
symbolize and the harsh repression carried out on the Uyghur people.
Amid heavy security, including police checks of vehicles, ubiquitous
snipers and warnings to residents to stay inside their buildings with
their windows shuttered, Uyghurs in Urumchi have faced an atmosphere of fear.

"The Olympic Games and the Olympic torch should improve human rights
and bring peace to China, but instead, the torch relay in East
Turkistan is a demonstration of China's dictatorship," said Uyghur
American Association president Rebiya Kadeer. "Uyghurs are simply
waiting for the end of the torch relay and the Olympics, so that they
can return to their normal lives."

The Uyghur American Association (UAA) has learned that thousands of
Uyghurs were detained in the months leading up to the torch's arrival
in East Turkistan. In addition, Uyghurs in East Turkistan have been
told to avoid contact with foreigners, especially foreign
journalists, and Uyghur imams have been ordered to undergo "political
education" regarding the Olympics.

UAA has also learned that government authorities in East Turkestan
vetted the small number of Uyghur participants and spectators
involved in the torch relay, warning that the government would
reprimand any Uyghurs who discussed topics perceived as sensitive
with members of the press. These Uyghurs were told that, if they
disobeyed the warnings, they could be charged with the crime of
"revealing state secrets."

According to media reports, foreign journalists were told they could
only select one location from which to view the torch relay in
Urumchi. Around 3,000 people, overwhelmingly Han Chinese in
ethnicity, converged on Urumchi's People's Square to cheer on the
torch relay, as a large banner proclaimed unity among all ethnicities
in East Turkistan.

Unlike in other cities in the People's Republic of China (PRC)
through which the torch has passed, residents of Urumchi were told by
top sports official Li Guangming to stay at home today, "because of
safety issues" and watch the event at home on television.

Tomorrow [18 June 2008], the torch is set to arrive in Kashgar, a
traditionally Uyghur city in southern East Turkistan. Media reports
state that militia were deployed overnight along the torch route in
Kashgar, and soldiers and firefighters were patrolling the city's
main square. On Thursday [19 June 2008], the torch is set to arrive
in the cities of Shihezi and Changji, both centers of activity for
the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a semi-military
governmental organization existing only in East Turkistan.

Beijing Olympic organizers recently moved the East Turkistan portion
of the domestic torch relay forward one week- the torch was
originally scheduled to arrive in East Turkistan on June 25 [2008]. A
variety of factors may have contributed to the change, including a
period of official mourning for victims of the recent earthquake in
Sichuan that temporarily delayed the relay, but observers believe
that Chinese officials also wanted to preclude any public signs of
protest in Tibet, where the torch was originally scheduled to arrive
at this time. While the relay has skirted Tibet for now, the torch
relay in East Turkestan seems designed to reinforce the dictatorial
control of the central government over the region.

On the international stage, government authorities clearly hope to
project an image of harmony and unity along with the torch relay, and
prevent any public displays of dissent among local Uyghurs. But
recent peaceful protests against systematic violations of human
rights, such as a demonstration of hundreds of Uyghur women in the
city of Hotan in late March [2008], have belied government
propaganda. Chinese officials know that publicity of any protests
surrounding the torch relay would further disprove the government's
line that all Uyghurs are contented with official policies.

"Uyghurs in East Turkistan fear that they may be arrested at any
time, for any perceived expression of discontent, as they face
abnormally harsh security restrictions" said Ms. Kadeer. "The
authorities are using the torch relay in East Turkistan to promote a
propaganda message of content and ethnic harmony, while at the same
time filling prisons with innocent Uyghurs, and committing atrocities
against the Uyghurs on an unprecedented scale."

The PRC has long sought to equate all Uyghur opposition to Chinese
government policies with "terrorism." Over the past seven years,
using "terrorism" as a justification, Beijing has undertaken a
renewed, systematic, and sustained crackdown on all forms of Uyghur
dissent. As is common in the PRC justice system, those arrested in
these campaigns frequently suffer from physical abuse and other
maltreatment while in government custody. In addition, they are often
subject to nontransparent trials and denied access to independent
counsel. Convictions are regularly obtained on the basis of forced
confessions extracted through torture.

Recently, the PRC government has put forward several specific
terrorism claims, without sufficient evidence provided to support
their accusations. For instance, in early April [2008], PRC announced
at a press conference that a plot by "East Turkestan terrorists" had
been thwarted by the authorities. Interrogations of the 35 suspects
in custody were said to have revealed the plot's aim of disrupting
the Beijing Olympics through suicide attacks and the kidnapping of athletes.

With regard to the alleged Olympics terror plot, Nicholas Bequelin, a
Hong Kong-based expert on Uyghur issues with Human Rights Watch,
cautioned "The experience around the world since the launch of the
global war on terrorism has taught the international community how
easily threats of terrorism can be manipulated by authoritarian
governments for their own purposes."

Much like Tibetans, Uyghurs in East Turkestan have struggled for
cultural survival in the face of a government-supported influx of
Chinese migrants, as well as harsh repression of political dissent
and any expression of their distinct identity, however lawful or
peaceful. A U.S. State Department report released in March 2008 draws
attention to human rights abuses by PRC authorities in East
Turkestan, including the use of the legal system as a tool of
repression against Uyghurs who voice discontent with the government;
the fierce suppression of Uyghur religion, a moderate form of Sunni
Islam that is a vital part of their ethnic identity; the transfer of
young Uyghur women from majority Uyghur areas of East Turkestan to
work in factories in urban areas of eastern China; and the
elimination of Uyghur language in schools under the current
"bilingual education" policy.
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