Thirteen years on, the victims of the Ghulja Massacre remain unaccounted for

For immediate release
February 5, 2010, 3:30 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 349 1496

The Uyghur American Association (UAA) marks the thirteenth anniversary of the Ghulja Massacre, when police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration of Uyghurs in the city of Ghulja [Ch: Yining] in East Turkestan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), and thousands of people were detained on suspicion of participating in the demonstration. The anniversary follows a year in which an untold number of peaceful Uyghur demonstrators were killed by Chinese security forces in the regional capital of Urumchi, and police and military forces conducted mass arrests and arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs throughout the city.

“Thirteen years later, mothers, wives and children of many who disappeared in the Ghulja Massacre do not even know if their loved ones are dead or alive,” said Uyghur democracy leader Rebiya Kadeer. “The families of those who disappeared deserve to know what happened to their loved ones. It is incomprehensible that so many years later, the truth of the Ghulja Massacre continues to be hidden from the people of East Turkestan. Our grief is only compounded as we mourn the disappearance of countless others who have been arbitrarily detained in the wake of unrest in Urumchi.”

UAA calls upon the Chinese government to account for the many Uyghurs in Ghulja and Urumchi whose whereabouts remain unaccounted for, and to release those who remain in detention today because of their peaceful involvement in the demonstrations in Ghulja in 1997 and in Urumchi in 2009. In addition, UAA calls upon Chinese authorities to allow an independent international inquiry into the events surrounding the deaths and the subsequent arrests, prison sentences, and executions that took place in both Ghulja and Urumchi.

According to some sources, over 100 people were killed when police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in Ghulja on February 5, 1997. In the aftermath of the massacre, thousands of people were detained on suspicion of participating in the demonstration; in some cases, family members of those who had participated were also detained. Dozens and possibly hundreds of Uyghurs were executed, some in public, following summary trials; many others were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including life, on charges of ‘hooliganism\’. Other people simply disappeared, and are assumed to be either in prison or dead, their remains disposed of without their families being informed.

“History repeated itself in macabre fashion in Urumchi this past year, when police cracked down on peaceful Uyghur protestors on July 5,” said Ms. Kadeer. “Chinese authorities responded yet again with brute force, crushing Uyghurs who had gathered to protest against unequal treatment. Since that day, thousands of Uyghurs have been detained, and many have simply disappeared off the face of the earth; at least nine have been executed after unfair trials. Today, Uyghurs are too afraid even to ask where their loved ones have been taken, and we may never know what has happened to the many who have been tortured and killed in detention.”

On February 5, 2010, the mayor of Urumchi stated that the city faced an “arduous fight against separatism” for years to come, and Chinese authorities announced earlier in the week that 5,000 special police officers would be sent to East Turkestan to help prevent unrest. In mid-January, officials announced an increase in funding for regional security and pledged to crack down on Uyghur separatists and the three forces of “terrorism, separatism and extremism”. Chinese officials have consistently placed the blame for civil unrest on what they term a small minority of troublemakers rather than recognizing widespread discontent.

Between ten and fifteen thousand demonstrators in Ghulja took part in a non-violent march in 1997 to protest in support of equal treatment, religious freedom, and an end to racial discrimination in response to ever more repressive policies and practices against the majority Uyghur community in Ghulja. Most of the demonstrators were young men, although women and children were also present among the crowds, and reports indicate that they were among the injured and killed.

Chinese authorities sent fully armed paramilitary police to confront the unarmed demonstrators with batons, tear gas and high-pressure water sprayed from fire trucks. Eyewitnesses report that Chinese police fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing and wounding demonstrators.

Chinese police then rounded up fleeing demonstrators, loaded them onto military trucks already stationed by the sides of the roads, and took them to different detention facilities in and around Ghulja. When all of the facilities in Ghulja were filled, police took several hundred demonstrators to a sports stadium and soaked them with cold water from a fire hose. Several people developed frostbite in the wintry conditions, and later had to have hands, feet or whole limbs amputated.

Prior to the demonstration in Ghulja, the Chinese government authorities had banned one of the few remaining forums for community gathering among Uyghurs, traditional Uyghur gatherings known as meshrep. In Ghulja, meshrep had been used to successfully address problems such as alcohol and drug abuse among Uyghur youth, in part through the organization of a youth soccer league aimed at unemployed Uyghur youth. However, just before the soccer tournament was due to begin, Chinese government authorities parked tanks on the soccer fields in Ghulja, claiming the space was needed for military exercises.

According to an Amnesty International report issued in April 1999, China executed more than 200 Uyghurs in February 1997 for their participation in the demonstration. Some sources put this number at more than 400. Detainees suspected of organizing the demonstration were the victims of severe torture in prison and many died as a result of the injuries sustained during torture.

East Turkestan remains largely cut off from the rest of the world through state-imposed phone and Internet restrictions, seven months after July 5. International telephone communication has been continuously blocked or heavily restricted, cutting off almost all communication between Uyghurs in East Turkestan and their family and friends living abroad.

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