Propaganda aimed overseas is not a guarantee of religious freedom for Uyghurs

Uyghur Human Rights Project Commentary

Eid ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar (2010)

Eid ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar (2010) courtesy of Preston Rhea

In the run up to Ramadan 2016, the Chinese government and state media put considerable effort into convincing the world that the religious freedom of Uyghurs is respected.

On June 2, three days before the beginning of Ramadan, the State Council Information Office issued a white paper titled Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang. The document comes nineteen years after a previous white paper with a similar title, Freedom of Religious Belief in China. The difference in last word in the two titles is telling and reveals some of the pressure Chinese officials are under from overseas states and groups regarding allegations of religious curbs placed on Uyghurs.

A report released by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) in 2013 detailed a number of these concerns. For example, Uyghur religious leaders, such as imams, are carefully vetted and required to attend political education classes to ensure compliance with state regulations before they are able to take up their positions. UHRP also described restrictions on Uyghurs concerning religious dress, mosque attendance, religious education and undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage.

A further prohibition on students, teachers and government workers from fasting during Ramadan has caused the most disquiet overseas in the past, particularly in Muslim countries where China is keen to promote a positive image as it embarks on its ambitious One Belt, One Road economic initiative. Therefore, the timing of the white paper’s release, as well as a raft of puff pieces in the state media during Ramadan in 2016, comes as no surprise.[1]

Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang promised: “To let the peoples of the rest of the world know the real situation of religious freedom in Xinjiang” and states the “central government and local governments at all levels of Xinjiang have fully implemented the system of regional ethnic autonomy and the policy on the freedom of religious belief, and constantly improved laws and regulations on the administration of religious affairs.”

UHRP’s 2013 report asserts it is those very laws and regulations that have legitimized the repression of Uyghur religious freedom by criminalizing an increasing number of peaceful religious practices. Rather than simply outright forbid religious observance, Chinese local and central authorities have implemented legislation that has progressively narrowed the definition of lawful activity, including on who can and who cannot fast at Ramadan. It is through such shades in the legal code China is able to demonstrate to the world that it respects religious freedom while violating it at the same time.

However, international human rights standards do not fit with such nuances and state abuse of one individual’s religious freedom amounts to China not meeting its rights obligations. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines: “Everyone [UHRP bold] has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This human rights standard is restated in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and Article 2 of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

Ramadan for Uyghurs in 2016 was no different than any other. The same restrictions facing students, teachers and government workers on fasting were still in place, and as a result the same right to religious freedom violated. Reports from The Washington Post, Radio Free Asia,[2] AFP and China Digital Times all document the familiar curbs placed on some Uyghurs wishing to observe the Ramadan fast.

What differentiates Ramadan in 2016 from previous years is that the holy month formed part of China’s on-going effort to convince the world of its sincerity toward religious tolerance. While a few Muslims overseas protested Ramadan curbs in 2016, China invited delegations of clerics from Pakistan, Muslim civil society organizations from Indonesia and overseas journalists to witness China’s respect for Islam and Ramadan. The extent of Chinese government management of these visits and the freedom to talk openly with ordinary religious Uyghurs is not fully known. One editorial in the Pakistani media called the visit of the clerics “a junket.” However, some sections of the Pakistani press were firm on China’s earnestness, as was the delegation of clerics on Uyghurs’ ability to freely observe the fast.

Nevertheless, the United States remains unconvinced. A State Department spokesperson told the Press Trust of India on June 29: “We call on Chinese authorities to protect freedom of religion and allow citizens to worship freely in accordance with China’s international human rights commitments.” On July 6, one day after the end of Ramadan, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a strong condemnation of the fasting restrictions placed on Uyghurs stating: “These restrictions are particularly egregious during this month-long period of introspection, fasting, prayer, and devotion.” Overseas media, such as Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, were lukewarm to the assertions made in Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang.

While the propaganda of the 2016 white paper claims: “freedom of religious belief in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region today cannot be matched by that in any other historical period” and Chinese government sponsored “fact-finding” trips attempt to positively spin discriminatory legislation to the outside world, Ramadan 2016 has also shown there is little change toward the improvement of religious freedom among all Uyghurs.

A more credible approach China should take to assure an overseas audience that it is meeting the Uyghurs’ right to religious freedom is to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief to the region and offer unfettered access to Uyghur communities. Such unconditional monitoring trips should also be extended to overseas diplomats and journalists, as well as delegates from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

[1] For more examples from Xinhua see: Chinese Muslims observe Ramadan (June 6, 2016); Online food ordering a hit in Urumqi during Ramadan (June 14, 2016); Across China: Kashgar’s signature food is far from half-baked (July 6, 2016) and China Focus: 20 min Chinese Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr (July 6, 2016).

[2] See also: China Enters Ramadan With Round-The-Clock Surveillance of Mosques, Uyghurs (June 6, 2016).

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Testimony: China’s Harassment of Uyghurs Overseas

UAA President Ilshat Hassan faces CECC co-chairs Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith

UAA President Ilshat Hassan faces CECC Cochairs Congressman Chris Smith and Senator Marco Rubio

In a Congressional hearing on May 24 2016, Uyghur American Association President Ilshat Hassan was invited to testify regarding China’s attempts to stifle human rights activists overseas. The hearing, entitled “The Long Arm of China: Global Efforts to Silence Critics from Tiananmen to Today,” was organized by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a research body with a mandate to monitor human rights issues in the People’s Republic of China. Watch footage from the hearing online:

The following is the text from Mr. Hassan’s prepared testimony:

Written Statement of Ilshat Hassan Kokbore

President, Uyghur American Association

Congressional-Executive Commission on China Hearing

Good afternoon.

I would like to first thank the CECC for holding this important hearing today, and for inviting me to participate. I am a victim of the Chinese government’s constant political persecution, and a human rights activist living in the U.S.

Personally, I hope the U.S. government and U.S. Congress can understand the Chinese government’s long arm, which stretches beyond China’s borders to overseas, to threaten and harass overseas human rights activists. I hope the U.S. government and Congress will act to hold the Chinese government accountable for its vicious actions.

This is my personal story.

My name is Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, also known as Ilshat Hassan. I was born in Ghulja, East Turkistan.

I have been politically active against communist Chinese rule in East Turkistan since studying at university in the 1980s. Constantly under harassment, threats, and persecution from the regional government’s secret service agency, I was forced to leave East Turkistan in November 2003, leaving behind my parents, sisters and brothers, wife, and child. After three years of waiting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for resettlement as a refugee, in July 2006, I came to the U.S.

After coming to the U.S., I joined the Uyghur American Association (UAA) and became a very active member of UAA. I actively participated, organizing demonstrations against the Chinese government’s occupation of East Turkistan, attending and holding conferences to expose the Chinese government’s cruel policy against the Uyghur people, and writing articles in Chinese to rebuke their claim over East Turkistan.

My political activities greatly agitated the Chinese government. In the beginning, the Chinese government held my family members hostage, denying my wife and son passports; inhumanely causing the forced separation of my family. I was only able to meet with my son after 10 years of long-suffering separation.

After losing the hope of getting a passport for my wife, and also of protecting her from constant harassment from the Chinese government and secret agents, I had to make the painful decision to get a divorce. But that didn’t stop the Chinese government from continuing to harass and threaten my ex-wife, and she was continually under surveillance and threats.

In order to pressure me to stop my political activities, on August 17, 2014, at midnight, Chinese authorities burst into my elder sister’s house around 1:30 a.m.; after searching her house and taking her son’s computer, she was detained in an undisclosed place for around 8-10 months, without any charge. Even though she was released, she still has to report to the local police regularly, and has to get approval even to visit our parents.

On the same day, August 17, 2014, RFA journalist Shohret Hoshur’s two brothers were detained, and were later sentenced. This was obvious retaliation against Mr. Hoshur, who revealed a great deal about Chinese police brutality against Uyghurs.

As we all know, prominent Uyghur leader, human rights champion, and World Uyghur Congress (WUC) president Mrs. Rebiya Kadeer has constantly been accused by the Chinese government of being an evil separatist; and her two sons were sentenced to jail as retaliation from the Chinese government.

The Chinese government pressured one of Mrs. Kadeer’s imprisoned sons to condemn his mother, and to accuse Mrs. Kadeer of being an evil criminal. As normal, civilized human beings, we cannot imagine under what circumstances, and under what kind of pressure, a son was forced to condemn his dearest mother, accusing his own mother publicly of being a criminal!

Dolkun Isa, another prominent Uyghur human rights activist, and chair of the WUC executive committee, was recently preparing to attend a meeting held in Dharamsala, India. The Indian government, after issuing a visa to Mr. Isa, and under the Chinese government’s pressure, cancelled the visa, denying Mr. Isa entry into India.

In late 2009, Mr. Isa, as a German citizen, was in immediate danger of being repatriated back to China when he tried to enter South Korea to attend a human rights conference. He was put in solitary confinement for more than three days, before the U.S. and European Union intervened.

The Chinese government has constantly tried to block all of Mr. Isa’s political activities by claiming he is a wanted terrorist according to an Interpol red notice, baselessly accusing him of supporting and funding terrorists.

Recently, another friend of mine, a Uyghur who is a Norwegian citizen, called me and told me that his family members living in East Turkistan were being harassed by the Chinese government; some of his family members were brought to the police station and interrogated for several hours, and they were told to tell him to stop any activities supporting Uyghurs.

Of course, we all know about the Uyghur refugees who managed to get out of China; but unfortunately, they were sent back to China by some irresponsible countries when they were in the process of applying for UNHCR refugee status. Some of them were directly interrogated by Chinese police in other countries, and their family members were threatened. After they were repatriated, most of them disappeared, and some of them were given harsh sentences.

The story of Uyghurs facing the Chinese government’s constant persecution, harassment, and threats goes on and on. Even Uyghurs who live overseas can’t be spared from the inhuman political persecution of the Chinese government. The Chinese government’s long arm keeps stretching longer and longer. It’s obvious that if China isn’t pressured to stop this kind of harassment, no one will be safe, regardless of where we live.

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Patigul Ghulam – “I don’t have a gun, I have only my mouth and my tears, and you cannot control them.”

Original Chinese Blog by Zubayra Shamseden, UHRP Chinese Outreach Coordinator

The following is the translation of a Chinese language blog published by the Uyghur Human Rights Project on February 16, 2016. According to Radio Free Asia, Patigul Ghulam faces trial in April, 2016.  

Patigul Ghulam. Illustration by Brian Williamson, courtesy of Radio Free Asia

Patigul Ghulam. Illustration by Brian Williamson, courtesy of Radio Free Asia

Patigul Ghulam is a mother unwavering in her commitment to find her missing son who disappeared after the “July 5 incident.” It is well known that hundreds died and thousands were injured in the “July 5 incident,” which brought untold suffering to the Uyghur people. In addition to the hundreds who died and thousands injured, during and after July 5, 2009 many Uyghurs were arrested and disappeared and have not been heard from since.

On July 5, 2009, Uyghurs peacefully gathered in Urumchi’s People’s Square to protest the government’s inaction in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province, after a deadly attack on Uyghur workers there. Details of that day and the following months are still unclear today. What is clear is that the events in Urumchi caused an untold number of casualties and unprecedented unrest. Eyewitness accounts of the July 5 events in Urumchi documented in a report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project as well as human rights groups including Amnesty International confirm instances in which Chinese riot police shot and killed peaceful Uyghur protestors.

At that time, brave Uyghur mother Patigul Ghulam’s son Ali was 25 years old, and seven days after the major unrest of July 5 (around July 12), police took him away. Ever since her son was taken, she has appealed to authorities, and searched everywhere for her son, to no avail. Throughout her search process, Patigul has suffered countless insults and unreasonable treatment by the local authorities.

According to Radio Free Asia, on May 27, 2014 the Urumchi Public Security Bureau detained Patigul on the grounds that she “aided hostile forces to publicly vilify the government.” An anonymous neighbor of Patigul who is familiar with the situation gave an account to Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service, citing Patigul’s daughter. The neighbor said that after a bombing incident at an Urumchi fruit market on the morning of May 22, 2014, the Urumchi police detained Patigul on May 27 on charges of “aiding hostile forces to publicly vilify the government,” though the police never explained what her illegal behavior actually was. Patigul’s daughter protested the police conduct, but she was threatened that if she continued to attract public attention and cause trouble, she would be found guilty of the same crime as her mother.

Because of her son’s disappearance after his arrest by police, Patigul has spent years protesting to the local authorities, demanding an explanation, and actively appealing to overseas media. Based on reports, nine months after her son’s arrest, she heard directly from another prisoner that Ali had been tortured and was hospitalized. Thereafter she did not receive any further information about her son.

According to investigations by Uighurbiz and other independent websites, after the “July 5 incident” the Chinese authorities arrested 1,800 Uighurs – some were sentenced to death; some were sentenced to life imprisonment; some were released; and many went missing, and their whereabouts remain a mystery today. Based on the understanding of overseas Uyghur groups, seven years later the family members of those who disappeared have been subject to long-term pressure and monitoring.

As one among hundreds of mothers who lost their sons and daughters, Patigul’s experience showcases the inhumane treatment that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopts towards Uyghurs like her. It is suffering enough to lose close relatives and sons or daughters, and to “add fuel to the fire” by further abusing a woman with nowhere to turn is simply inhumane. Nevertheless, as Patigul has said, “I don’t have a gun, I have only my mouth and my tears, and you cannot control them.” No matter how the CCP tramples the freedom and rights of the Uyghurs, the CCP government is powerless to cover up the “mouths” of the Uyghur people even after its long-term forceful oppression, their “tears” cried for freedom, or their perseverance in the struggle for their future.

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