Internet reopened in East Turkestan, but Uyghur webmasters and bloggers remain behind bars

For immediate release
May 14, 2010, 7:00 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 535 0037

Following today’s announcement in the Chinese state media that “full Internet access” has been restored in East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), the Uyghur American Association (UAA) calls upon the international community to remember the many Uyghur website administrators, bloggers and journalists who have been detained since July 5, 2009, many of whom remain in detention. UAA urges the Chinese government to release these individuals in order to demonstrate that the Internet in East Turkestan has become truly free. In addition, UAA calls upon the Chinese government to lift current restrictions on Uyghurs seeking Internet access in Internet cafés throughout China.

Chinese officials shut off all Internet and cell phone access in East Turkestan immediately following unrest that shook the regional capitol of Urumchi on July 5, 2009. International telephone communication was continuously blocked or heavily restricted for more than half a year after July 5, cutting off almost all communication between Uyghurs in East Turkestan and their family and friends living abroad. Among the thousands of Uyghurs who were arbitrarily detained and “forcibly disappeared” in the days, weeks and months after July 5 were the owners and staff of many Uyghur websites accused by the government of having promoted “separatism”.

Among those Uyghur website staff and bloggers who remain in detention are Memet Turghun Abdulla, a photographer who published an article online about an attack on Uyghur factory workers believed to have sparked the July 2009 unrest; Gheyret Niyaz, a journalist who was detained after talking to foreign media about the unrest; Dilshat Parhat, who co-founded the Uyghur-run website Diyarim; Obulkasim, an employee of Diyarim; Nureli, who founded the Uyghur website Selkin; and website supervisor Muhemmet. UAA is unaware of any charges that have been filed against these cyber-dissidents, and believes they have likely been tortured while in detention. Family members have also not been informed of the location where these individuals are being held.

Three volunteer website supervisors- Muztagh, Lukchek, and Yanchukchi- were reportedly also detained after July 5, together with two women – Heyrinsa and Halnur – who were students at the Xinjiang Art Institute. It is unclear whether or not these individuals remain in detention.

Well-known academic, economist and”>> editor Ilham Tohti, though free today, has been repeatedly detained and harassed throughout the past year, simply for speaking out about Chinese policies in East Turkestan, and for trying to promote inter-ethnic dialogue. He was recently barred from traveling to Turkey to attend an academic conference.

UAA expresses concern over a statement made in today’s official media announcement that the regional government has set up a phone and e-mail hotline for Internet users to report “harmful” Internet content. This announcement comes in the wake of new Xinjiang Party chief Zhang Chunxian’s remarks that the regional government would renew its crackdown on “separatist elements” and maintain stability above all else.

The regional government adopted a law on “national unity” in late December 2009, which mandated “education for ethnic unity in Xinjiang” and which appeared aimed at stifling the spread of any views running counter to official government dogma.

According to a state media report, three cell phone users in East Turkestan were punished by public security officials in January 2010 for sending text messages containing “harmful information” and affecting “ethnic unity”. One such user was detained after allegedly sending messages seeking to “split the country” on January 17, and another cell phone user was reported to have “disturbed social security”. A third cell phone user, a university student, was reportedly punished for sending “terrorist” text messages.

The Chinese government has skillfully managed news about the gradual opening up of the Internet and cell phone communications, beginning with extremely limited Internet access in late December 2009. Even today, Internet access in East Turkestan remains limited because of the “Great Firewall” put in place by the Chinese government throughout China. Many analysts have noted that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube remain inaccessible to all Chinese Internet users without special software.

Prior to the July 2009 unrest, Uyghurs were also at risk of detention for posting articles online deemed sensitive by Chinese authorities. The case of young Uyghur journalist Mehbube Ablesh exemplifies a pattern of egregious violations of Uyghurs’ freedom of expression. The 29-year-old Ablesh, who worked for the Xinjiang People’s Radio Station in Urumchi, was dismissed from her post in August 2008 and arrested after posting articles critical of the government online. No details regarding her whereabouts or any charges against her have been made public.

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