Ilham Tohti Wins 2017 Weimar Human Rights Award

On Thursday June 29th the Weimar city council announced that they have awarded this year’s Weimar Human Rights Award to Professor Ilham Tohti for his dedication to advancing the cause of human rights for the Uyghur people.

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In recognition of “its special historical responsibility and as a symbol of all the anonymous victims of dictatorships and tyrannies throughout the world,” the German city of Weimar each year presents a human rights award to “individuals, groups or organizations who actively advocate humaneness and tolerance between persons and peoples, and who particularly promote the protection and establishment of fundamental values such as equality, freedom and justice against the background of their ethnic and religious identity in their or for their home country.”

Ilham Tohti certainly meets the above criteria; he received a harsh sentence of life in prison for his efforts to promote dialogue and understanding between Han and Uyghurs through a Chinese language website entitled Uyghurbiz. In its announcement the Weimar city council stated that Professor Tohti always advocated peaceful co-existence and obeyed the existing laws of the China, and that his imprisonment and harsh sentence made it appear that the Chinese government is not interested in a peaceful resolution to the problems in the region. The council stated that it hopes the prize will help ensure that Professor Tohti’s message of peace and dialogue will not be forgotten, and will bolster efforts to secure his release.

The announcement of the council’s decision comes as attention to the plight of political prisoners in China has increased as news of the prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo’s terminal cancer diagnosis has made headlines around the world, with many interpreting his denial of treatment by the authorities as tantamount to a death sentence.

Liu Xiaobo is among the thirty-eight portraits of prisoners of conscience in China by Ai Weiwei opening this month at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. The portraits are part of his work entitled Trace, consisting of 176 portraits of activists and free speech advocates from around the world made from thousands of Lego bricks. Among the portraits are six Uyghurs, including Ilham Tohti.

Ai Weiwei’s Trace can be seen at the Hirshhorn gallery in Washington D.C. until January 1, 2018. The Weimar Human Rights Award ceremony will take place on December 10th, International Human Rights Day.

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Memetjan Abdulla

A Uyghur journalist for an official radio service, he received a life sentence for translating a WUC call for Uyghurs to protest the violence against Uyghurs at the Shaoguan factory in 2009 and for speaking to foreign journalists on the matter.

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Nijat Azat

A journalist who managed a Uyghur language website, Nijat Azat was sentenced in 2010 to 10 years in prison for “endangering state security” for failing to delete content about the situation in East Turkestan from his website quickly enough.

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Gheyret Niyaz

A journalist and administrator on Ilham Tohti’s Uighurbiz website, Gheyret Niyaz was sentenced to 15 years in 2010. His essays and interviews with the foreign press were the evidence presented at his trail for endangering state security.

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Ilham Tohti

A professor of economics at Minzu University in Beijing and a prominent voice on Uyghurs’ economic, social and cultural issues, Ilham Tohti was imprisoned for life on charges of separatism in 2014.

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Nurmuhemmet Yasin

An award-winning author, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2005 for writing an allegorical short story entitled “Wild Pigeon” about a bird who chooses to die rather than sacrifice its freedom. Interpreting this a criticism of the government, the authorities tried and sentenced him without a lawyer. His current whereabouts are unknown.

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Alimjan Yamit

A Uyghur Christian preacher, Alimjan Yamit was detained in 2008 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for “selling state secrets to overseas organizations” despite having no access to sensitive material.

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The East Turkistan Australian Association Celebrates its 25th Anniversary

On the 29th of April Ms. Zubayra Shamseden spoke at the East Turkistan Australian Association’s 25th anniversary celebration.

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It is a great honor for me to be here today to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of East Turkistan Australian Association Inc. (ETAA)’s establishment. It is also a great feeling to be ‘back home’ – in my second beloved country Australia, where I was privileged to experience a free and democratic society for the first time.

It is impossible to celebrate the tremendous success of the ETAA without high praise for those individuals, organizations, and supporters who have contributed or have continued to contribute for the last 25 years, whether they are here with us today or not.

Personally, I wish to pay my highest respect to the group of leaders who initiated the establishment of the Association: they are Mr. Muhammet Abdulla, Mr. Ahmet Igamberdi, Mrs. Suyun’gul Chanishef, Late leader Mr. Tahirjan Mahmodi, Mr. Yusuf Mezensoff and Mr. Alimhan Hasanoff. Also, our biggest volunteer community supporters at the time: Yoldash Ghoja Shalar, Turghan Abdulla, Akram Hashimajy and Mr. Muhammad Wali Hanifi from the Afghan community. Without all these community leaders and supporters’ devotion and tireless work at the beginning, the ETAA would not exist today.

Certainly, simply spreading the seeds or planting the tree is not enough for fruits to ripen with taste. There are countless community members, men and women, young and old, new and experienced, who continue to work for the development and improvement of the ETAA and everything it stands for.

I also wish to mention a few Australian government sectors and officials who believed in the ability and the future of the East Turkestan community in Australia, and who have continually supported us. It would not have been possible to create an East Turkestani community in Australia (‘East Turkestan’ is almost a holy name for Uyghurs) or the East Turkistan Australian Association without the recognition and acceptance of the Australian government. On behalf of our community, I wish to thank a few of those who worked closely with us throughout the years. They are the Multicultural SA, Department of Education, Wandana Community Center, Tea Tree Gully local council and the Migration Museum of South Australia.

Furthermore, without the close support of Mrs. Katrina Breffa from Ethnic Schools Board of SA, Department of Education, Mrs. Inter Rumper from Ethnic Schools of Association of SA, Multicultural Education Committee (an Advisory committee to the Minister) and the generous funding from the Department of Education of SA, an integral part of the Association, the Uyghur Language School of South Australia, would not exist or continue to provide excellent educational services to its community today.

Last but not least, the establishment of different cultural, religious and social activities under the umbrella management of the Association are also commendable. They are the Meshrep, which was established with the commemoration of ‘Ghulja Massacre’, which happened in connection with the cultural gathering of Meshrep in Ghulja on February 5, 1997. The soccer group, established to mobilize young members of community through sports activities. And the Tengri Tagh mothers group, established to mobilize mothers and young girls to contribute in community activities and networking.

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Today, we have gathered to celebrate a truly inclusive and harmonious society in Australia. However, while we celebrate here, this very culture and community that has been able to thrive under a democratic Australian society, is facing extinction in East Turkestan under the Chinese communist regime. The Chinese government sees this very culture and religion as threat to its dictatorial regime. Therefore, I wish to briefly mention the religious persecution Uyghurs are facing today.

Uyghurs are subjected to severe and worsening repression of their freedom to practice their religion. The forms of repression are various. For example, as imams are the leaders of faithful Muslims, normally, they are required to deliver the divine message of God to its followers, however the Chinese government has restricted Uyghur imams from preaching the truth, instead forcing them to obey the rules of Communism and propagate government agendas in the mosques. Many imams are arrested and accused of ‘being wild’ due to disobedience to the instruction of the authorities. The humiliating show of repression has taken on ridiculous forms: local authorities force imams to dance in public squares, hold beer/alcohol drinking festivals during the month of Ramadan in the southern part of East Turkestan – the heart of Uyghur culture and tradition – display the Chinese flag inside mosques instead of where the Qiblah/prayer direction should stand, hang pictures of communist leaders on the walls of Mosques, force worshipers to go to specific government designated Mosques where Government appointed imams deliver prayer sermons, private prayers are strictly prohibited – if the authorities find out about Uyghurs praying in their own private house with family members and friends as a ‘jama’a’, those people are punished and accused of undertaking ‘illegal religious activities’. The paranoia of restrictions have gone far – according to a visitor who recently came to the USA from Urumchi, the Mosques are not allowed to use loud speakers to call ‘Azan’/call for prayer for Friday sermons.

The government has rules against Islamic dress for women and beards for men; Uyghur women are especially targeted by the government’s efforts to control religious expression, strictly enforcing rules against Islamic dress, preventing those wearing headscarves from entering hospitals, schools and government buildings, and sometimes forcing them to remove them before they are permitted on transportation. The Freedom House report also noted that “police increasingly approach women to enforce the rules, search homes based on informant tips, and fine violators” despite the fact that the rules of what articles of clothing are illegal are unclear.

Activities of the büwi, women who recite the Qur’an at religious gatherings and sing at shrine festivals, are also strictly controlled, and they are forced to undergo training by the authorities.  Training involves ensuring that they understand their role in “safeguarding social stability” and “national unity,” as well their obligations to “obey state laws and regulations,” meaning enforcing the governments harsh rules on the practice of religion. Women are even barred from entering mosques, placing them in the same category as children under 18. It is more difficult for Uyghurs to go on Hajj than other Muslim groups in China, as it is difficult for them to obtain a passport. You may have read in the news recently that certain names that pertain to Islam have been banned as well, or how an Uyghur official was demoted for not wanting to smoke near elders, as this showed a lack of “resolute political stance” or a “commitment to secularization”.

I understand that today is not a time of sadness but celebration. However, the celebration that we are able to have in this free and democratic society is prohibited in the home country of this community. Therefore, I wish to call on the Australian government, and the organizations and individuals who are concerned with the universal value of human rights in communities of the lesser represented, voiceless people like Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in East Turkestan – I would like to ask that you put pressure on the Chinese government when you have business interactions or other diplomatic or political dial ogs with them. The valuable community spirit you can see and enjoy here today in Australia is under great threat in East Turkestan under China’s brutal regime.

Thank you again for being here today, and congratulations to this community for withstanding the test of time and cementing itself as a part of the wider Australian community. I hope we can work together to achieve a better life for us here today and give back to Australian Society, as well as work for a better life for our family and friends back in East Turkistan. Thank you

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Government Repression Cannot Solve the Problem of Fake News

The provincial government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has just passed a law that went into effect last week that will issue large fines of up to 500,000 RMB to individuals spreading false news and harmful content online, harmful being defined as damaging to national security, religious and ethnic harmony or seeking to overthrow the socialist system. The Chinese government takes great pains to control the spread of information online and is doubly concerned about anything touching upon events in East Turkestan.

This new regional law is in addition to the many national level ones that already exist regarding punishment for spreading rumors and the provisions in the national anti-terrorism law and its regional implementation guidelines for punishment of those spreading “extremist” content. Restrictions on the internet have been stricter in East Turkestan for years. The entire system was shut down for 10 months in 2009, and more recent examples include increasing restrictions on the use of VPNs- individuals detected using one had their internet shut down in 2015 and one young man was charged with using “restricted terrorist software” for having one on his phone. Uyghurs suffer particularly harsh penalties- one boy was jailed for life for watching videos on his phone; another died in prison for the same crime. The regional government has been requiring real name registration for cell phones and other digital devices, while it has become increasingly common for smart phones to simply be confiscated.

The term “fake news” 虚假信息 in the new law’s title evokes the issue that has recently become a hot topic in the United States. In the US the term refers to stories designed to look legitimate which are spread via social media or websites designed for the purpose, either to generate ad revenue or drive an extremist narrative. It is less clear how authorities who passed this law will define the term given the fact that true information is often suppressed in China, in addition to reports that are actually false. Indeed, the core of the issue is that although China is often held up as the ultimate example of an authoritarian regime successfully controlling new communications technology for its own ends, its complete control over the media and the ability to monitor and shut down blogs and websites has not made the public more trusting of official news sources- quite the opposite.

The government began a crackdown on ‘spreading rumors’ in 2013, with punishments including fines and even jail time. With the decline of Weibo and rise of Weixin (aka WeChat), the authorities are making an effort to deal with the more difficult to censor platform. The official think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that users are more likely to believe what they read on Weixin as communication on it tends to be through personal networks, and reported that as many as 2.1 million “rumors” are intercepted per day. They recommended that the government try to strengthen official sources of information and to have a way for netizens to flag false information.   The State Internet Information Office even set out guidelines saying that only official media accounts could print or reprint current events articles on their public Weixin accounts. None of this will solve the fundamental problem of the public seeing the official media as untrustworthy.

The spread of rumors and false news stories can indeed be harmful to society. Uyghurs were themselves victims of this in 2009 as rumors spread in the wake of the unrest in Urumqi of Uyghurs attacking Han with syringes. The authorities’ mishandling of the situation and citizens’ suspicion of the official media’s reporting exacerbated the hysteria. The passage of this latest local law will do nothing to reduce the spread of rumors, and there is every reason to believe that it could be used to punish those spreading true reports as well. It is only a free media, not one that serves the interests of the authorities, can seek the truth in current events and win the trust of the public. Although media around the world may be facing challenges in this, it is clear that repression only worsens the problem; it cannot solve it.

 

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