For immediate release
July 23, 2010, 5:00 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 535 0037
According to media reports, Uyghur journalist and webmaster Gheyret Niyaz was sentenced to 15 years in prison today (July 23) for endangering state security by speaking to foreign journalists. Niyaz reportedly informed government officials about plans for demonstrations that had been posted on websites prior to unrest that occurred on July 5, 2009 in Urumchi, the regional capital of East Turkestan, and later criticized the government’s handling of the unrest. The Uyghur American Association (UAA) believes the harsh sentence represents the Chinese government’s policy of no tolerance for any type of Uyghur dissent, as well as the government’s campaign to tightly control the flow of information and stem public criticism of official policy.
“China’s harsh sentencing of Gheyret Niyaz indicates that even Uyghurs with government ties are not allowed to voice opinions contradicting the official government line,” said Uyghur democracy leader Rebiya Kadeer. “Since even Niyaz was handed a 15-year sentence for speaking according to his conscience, I fear for the fate of the many other Uyghur bloggers and journalists detained after July 5 who have yet to be tried and sentenced. Gulmire Imin, a young woman who worked for the website Salkin, was already sentenced to life in prison in April 2010 for expressing herself online. What will happen to the many other Uyghurs who are languishing in jail cells for simply exercising their freedom of speech?”
Niyaz was reportedly sentenced following a one-day trial in Urumchi, which only one family member, his wife Risalet, was allowed to attend. Risalet was quoted in media reports as saying that Niyaz insisted in court that he had broken no laws, and that he said he had acted in good conscience as a citizen and a journalist. Risalet stated that during Niyaz’s trial, prosecutors presented essays Niyaz had written and used interviews he gave to foreign media in the wake of July 2009 unrest in Urumchi as evidence that he was guilty of endangering state security. Some observers believe Niyaz was arrested primarily because of an interview he gave to the Hong Kong publication Yazhou Zhoukan (亞洲週刊) in which he criticized officials’ handling of the unrest.
“Chinese authorities have silenced Uyghur accounts of the killings of Uyghur demonstrators in Urumchi during the July 2009 unrest,” said Ms. Kadeer. “They have even criminalized the examination of the government policies that led to the unrest. The Chinese government must allow a full and open examination of the unrest that took place, including the accounts of all witnesses to the unrest. Until this is allowed, tensions in the region will only worsen.”
Niyaz was not allowed to choose his own defense attorney. According to Chinese law, he has the right to appeal the verdict against him, but it is unknown whether he will exercise this right.
Prior to his arrest and detention in October 2009, Niyaz worked as a senior reporter for the Xinjiang Economic Daily and as an administrator for the website “Uighurbiz” (Uighur Online). The website, founded by Uyghur economist and blogger Ilham Tohti, was created as a multi-lingual forum for news and dialogue between Uyghurs, Han and other ethnicities on ethnic issues and other topics. The website has been shut down a number of times by Chinese government authorities, and is currently hosted on a server in the United States.
Both Tohti and Niyaz have publicly criticized official economic policies and official policies toward Uyghurs in East Turkestan, although Niyaz is widely viewed as primarily holding pro-government views. Niyaz’s writings specifically targeted the government’s policy of removing Uyghur as a language of instruction in East Turkestan’s schools, as well as government initiatives to send young Uyghur women to eastern China to work in poor conditions. Tohti was repeatedly detained and harassed throughout 2009 and the first half of 2010 for his outspoken criticism, and was recently barred from traveling to Turkey to attend an academic conference.
The Associated Press (AP) cited a 2008 interview with Niyaz in which he stated that he had been forced into semi-retirement from his job at the Xinjiang Economic Daily due to an article he wrote criticizing Wang Lequan, who was then the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang. Niyaz was cited as having told AP that stability was placed above all else in East Turkestan.
“You are either being praised or promoted for contributing to it or being arrested for harming it,” Niyaz told AP. “It’s love or hate and there’s no room for uncertainty, no third road.”
Niyaz is one of a number of Uyghur journalists, webmasters and bloggers to be detained in the wake of the July 2009 unrest. The owners and staff of many Uyghur websites were accused by the government of having promoted “separatism” or “splittism”.
Chinese officials accused Uighurbiz and other Uyghur-run websites, including Salkin and Diyarim, of inciting protests and violence on July 5, 2009 because in the days leading up to July 5, they had announced plans for the July 5 peaceful demonstration that took place at People’s Square. In a televised speech on July 6, 2009, regional chairman Nur Bekri specifically accused Uighurbiz of having been a catalyst for violence on July 5, which he said the website had helped to instigate by “spreading rumors”.
On April 1, 2010, 32-year-old website administrator Gulmire Imin was sentenced to life in prison for the crimes of “revealing state secrets”, illegally organizing a demonstration, and “splittism”. Imin was sentenced on the same day as being tried in a closed trial. She was invited to become an administrator for the website Salkin after having published a number of poems on various Uyghur websites. Imin was arrested on July 14, 2009, but her family did not receive any official documents regarding her detention.
The founder of the website Salkin, who goes by the name Nureli, was also detained after July 5, 2009 and remains in detention, as do the following website staff and bloggers: Memet Turghun Abdulla, a photographer who published an article online about attacks against Uyghurs that took place in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province, on June 26, 2009; Dilshat Parhat, who co-founded the website Diyarim; Obulkasim, an employee of Diyarim; and website supervisor Muhemmet. No reports have been made public regarding any charges filed against these individuals, and it is unclear where they are being held.