Suicide underlines plight of Uyghur refugees

For Immediate Release
December 30, 2005, 5:00 p.m. EST
Contact: Uyghur Human Rights Project, 1 (202) 349 1496

(WASHINGTON, DC DECEMBER 30, 2005.) Burhan Zunun, a Uyghur from Ghulja in East Turkistan, died at mid-day on December 29 in hospital in Denmark, apparently as a result of injuries sustained during an attempted suicide in police detention on Christmas Day.

The Uyghur American Association (UAA) has contacted the Royal Danish embassy in Washington, D.C., urging the Danish authorities to conduct a full and open inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death.

“The tragedy of his death is compounded by the fact that he died in the heart of a free Europe, said Ben Carrdus, a researcher at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP). “Without yet knowing the full circumstances of his death, we’re hoping his case will at least raise awareness of the desperate situation faced by Uyghurs, and hopefully stir governments throughout the world to start offering better protection for Uyghurs.

Burhan Zunun [Ch: Bo’erhan Zunung] was only 28 years old when he died. With a degree in physics from Xinjiang University, he should have expected a bright future in East Turkistan (referred to by Chinese authorities as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), where the government frequently professes the need for skilled personnel in its pursuit of ‘scientific development’ in the region.

According to sources, Zunun’s decision to leave East Turkistan in 2001 was based on more than just being constantly overlooked by employers who refuse to hire Uyghurs. He was also deeply frustrated at the levels of cultural, religious and social discrimination suffered by Uyghurs and had himself been politically active, expressing dissatisfaction at the discrimination faced by Uyghurs.

These “political errors , as the Chinese authorities refer to such opinions and actions, were entered onto Zunun’s personal files maintained by the government, and left him prone to harassment by police and state security officials, including arbitrary detention, and possible arrest on spurious charges.

The decision to leave East Turkistan is often not pre-meditated: Uyghurs leave immediately upon hearing they are about to be detained by police suspecting them of “illegal religious activities or “separatist thoughts .

Many such people arrive in Central Asian states to the west and northwest of East Turkistan – Zunun himself fled first to Kazakhstan. However, the Chinese government has brokered bilateral agreements with most of its immediate neighbors to the west, requiring those states to return Uyghurs to the PRC, usually following a simple request for extradition with little or no corroborating evidence of any criminal activities against the person in question.

Chinese state security organs are also known to send agents into neighboring Central Asian states to detain Uyghurs and take them back to the PRC, with the apparent permission of the local authorities.

Burhan Zunun arrived in Germany having flown there from Kazakhstan in October 2001. His claim for asylum in Germany was rejected in 2002, and rejected again on appeal in August 2003.

A frequently overlooked yet crucial aspect of asylum claims made by Uyghurs is the mere fact that choosing to flee abroad is perceived by the Chinese authorities as a potentially serious political crime. Even illegally crossing the PRC border can carry a one year prison sentence under China’s Criminal Law; Uyghurs who are then in contact with politically active members of the diaspora are under intense Chinese government suspicion of anything from plotting to “split the motherland , to facing unsubstantiated accusations of planning terrorist attacks against Chinese targets.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented numerous cases of Uyghurs who were forcibly returned to the PRC from second countries then being tortured and even executed; the UN Special Rapporteur on torture recently concluded that torture remains “widespread in the PRC following a mission to the country which included visiting detention facilities in East Turkistan; and Louise Arbor, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has expressed concern that the death penalty falls excessively on ethnic minorities in the PRC.

After Zunun’s unsuccessful appeal to the German immigration authorities in August 2003, he then fled to Norway, from where he was sent back to Germany. He then voluntarily returned to Kazakhstan, fearing the German immigration authorities would send him back to the PRC. However, still fearing for his safety at the hands of the Kazakh authorities he again fled back to Europe, hoping to reach Norway when he was detained by Danish authorities on December 23.

Borhan Zunun’s case is a tragic reminder of the plight of Uyghurs throughout the world. Discriminated against and vulnerable to arbitrary abuses and violations of their fundamental human rights in their homeland, Uyghurs can expect no safe harbor in Central Asia – sources have even told UHRP that Uyghurs in Pakistan are fleeing for Afghanistan where incredibly, they feel safer.

For those Uyghurs who have the means to reach Europe, an apparent lack of awareness of the situation faced by Uyghurs on the part of European states’ immigration authorities translates into the very real possibility that Uyghurs will be sent back if not to the PRC, where they would be at extremely high risk of torture, then to Central Asian states, where they are granted little or no protection against being sent back to the PRC.

“As Chinese government policies in East Turkistan continue to push ever more Uyghurs into levels of desperation where they are compelled to flee, we are urging governments throughout the world to conduct an urgent review of their immigration and asylum policies with regard to Uyghurs, added Mr. Carrdus.

Without due protection under international human rights law, Uyghurs are becoming stranded between a brutal regime in the PRC and a precarious existence of statelessness in the rest of the world.