Harsh July 5 sentences highlight official attempts to silence Uyghurs and suppress information about criminal procedures

For immediate release
January 10, 2011, 4:00 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 478 1920

Recent media reports have shed light on harsh sentences related to July 5, 2009 unrest in the city of Urumchi that are in line with Chinese officials’ aggressive campaign to silence and intimidate Uyghur voices. The Chinese government has attempted to manage and control information emerging from East Turkestan about July 5 unrest, through a communications blackout and through harsh punishment for Uyghur webmasters and journalists. Authorities have sought to penalize Uyghurs who have spoken to foreign media and who have provided accounts of events on July 5 that differ from the official narrative. In contrast to official pledges to conduct criminal procedures related to July 5 in a transparent manner, authorities have consistently failed to provide information about the detention, trials, and punishments handed down to Uyghur defendants. An official failure to systematically reveal information about criminal procedures reveals a lack of confidence about how such information will be received, and immediacy in information about July 5 verdicts has in some cases resulted in strong condemnation from both domestic and international critics.

The fact that information about July 5 cases has emerged after the fact, in a piecemeal fashion, means that Chinese criminal procedures are not subject to civil scrutiny. Family members who have sought to obtain information about their loved ones who have been detained have been turned away, and have even faced the threat of retaliation for their inquiries. Recent news of sentences related to the July 5 unrest was only revealed through correspondence sent by anonymous acquaintances of those convicted, and not through official reports. Prosecutors should proceed with criminal cases if evidence exists, but in the absence of a strong monitoring role from the press and civil society, judgments in these cases lack accountability.

According to a December 30 report by Radio Free Asia (RFA), 19-year-old Uyghur student Pezilet Ekber was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve following a closed trial in April 2010 on charges of involvement in violence in Urumchi. Officials reportedly warned Ekber’s parents to refrain from telling anyone about her sentence. According to a December 21 report from RFA, journalist Memetjan Abdulla was sentenced to life in prison in April 2010.

Ekber, a student at Xinjiang University who had been studying the Russian language, is the second female to be given a death sentence in relation to July 5 unrest. It is unclear what criminal charges Ekber was convicted of. Authorities ordered her father to leave Urumchi when he attempted to visit her prior to her trial. Employees of the Urumchi Intermediate Court, which sentenced Ekber, have refused to speak with reporters about the sentencing. A classmate who asked to remain anonymous provided the news of Ekber’s sentencing to RFA.

Chinese authorities frequently carry out executions to intimidate the Uyghur population and eliminate peaceful dissent. The news of the sentencing to death of a second Uyghur woman will likely frighten Uyghur women from becoming active in opposing Chinese oppression. Chinese officials were taken off guard when Uyghur women took to the streets on July 7, 2009 to protest against the detention of their male relatives.

Abdulla, a former editor at China National Radio and a manager for the website “Salkin”, is one of two Uyghur journalists reportedly sentenced to life in prison in 2010. The other journalist, 32-year-old Gulmire Imin, was reportedly sentenced at the same time. Imin was invited to become an administrator for 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. On April 1, 2010, she was sentenced to life in prison for the crimes of “revealing state secrets”, illegally organizing a demonstration, and “splittism”. Gulmire was sentenced on the same day as being tried in a closed trial, and her husband in Norway was able to publicize the news of her life sentence. Abdulla, who was charged with helping to instigate ethnic rioting, was reportedly also tried in a closed trial. News of his trial and punishment reached the public only through an anonymous letter from a friend.

According to the information provided to RFA, the unusual severity of Abdulla’s prison sentence was the result of official anger against him, after he had answered the questions of foreign journalists in Beijing about an incident that was believed to have sparked the July 5 unrest, and following his translation of many “sensitive” articles that were published on the Salkin website.

Uyghur journalist Gheyret Niyaz was sentenced to 10 years in prison in July 2010 for “endangering state security” by speaking to foreign journalists. Niyaz was reportedly sentenced following a one-day trial in Urumchi, which only one family member, his wife Risalet, was allowed to attend. 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. Niyaz had publicly expressed criticism over what he viewed as official mishandling of the unrest.

Three other Uyghur webmasters were also convicted on charges of “endangering state security” in July 2010. Dilshat Perhat, the 28-year-old webmaster and owner of the website Diyarim, was sentenced to five years in prison after a closed trial; Nureli, the webmaster of the website Salkin, and Nijat Azat, the webmaster of the website Shabnam, were tried in closed trials on or around the same day and sentenced to three and ten years respectively. Information about the criminal punishments for the three men came from a relative living overseas.

In December 2010, the press advocacy group “Committee to Protect Journalists” stated in a year-end report that the jailing of Uyghur and Tibetan journalists for covering ethnic issues and regional unrest was largely responsible for an increase in imprisoned journalists in China. The report cited Chinese officials’ “brutal suppression of ethnic journalism” as a major factor driving the number of jailed journalists up to 34 from 24 in the year 2009. The report also noted that China relies heavily on the use of vague anti-state charges, a charge confirmed by research publicized by the organization Dui Hua regarding the high number of trials on charges of “endangering state security”. Dui Hua expressed the belief that “a substantial percentage of those being prosecuted on state security charges” are Uyghurs and Tibetans.

A report issued in October 2009 by the group “Reporters Without Borders” documented the closure of dozens of Uyghur-run websites amid a region-wide Internet blackout.

“The Chinese government seems more interested in preventing Xinjiang’s inhabitants from circulating information about the real situation in the province, especially about the crackdown after the July riots,” said the group.

Uyghur accounts of events on July 5, 2009 and subsequent days and weeks have been provided to human rights groups and international media primarily by Uyghurs who have been able to leave China and seek relative safety in Western countries. The communications blackout throughout East Turkestan that was enforced by the government made it challenging for Uyghurs living abroad to learn about their families and friends, and even exiled Uyghurs expressed fear that they or their family members living in East Turkestan could be at great risk if Chinese authorities discovered that they had spoken out about July 5 events and human rights abuses against Uyghurs.

In all cases related to July 5 that have been reported in the official media, the defendants were sentenced on the same day their trials commenced or the following day. At least several of the trials were not publicly announced beforehand. China’s state media has reported that 26 individuals have been sentenced to death and nine individuals have been sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for murder and other crimes allegedly committed during the July unrest. According to their names, 24 of the 26 individuals sentenced to death have been Uyghur and two have been Han Chinese. At least eight of the nine individuals sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve have been Uyghur, according to the apparent ethnicity of their names.

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