Prosecution of Uighur Students Underscores Perils of Chinese Clampdown

New York Times, 24 November 2014

BEIJING — Ambitious and fluent in Mandarin, the young Uighur strivers from the Xinjiang region of northwest China had earned coveted slots at the nation’s top university for ethnic minorities. Most were the first in their families to attend college.

But since last January, at least five men and women who attended Minzu University in Beijing have been incommunicado after they were swept up by Chinese security forces alongside their mentor, Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur professor who in September was convicted of separatism and sentenced to life in prison.

Among those in detention are a young Uighur couple who fell in love while studying at Minzu University, a web designer from the Yi minority of China’s mountainous southwest and a sociology student whose mother is a Communist Party member. “No one will tell us what is happening to him,” one relative of the sociology student said. “We have nowhere else to turn.

The White House and international rights advocates have condemned Mr. Tohti’s conviction as politically motivated, noting his reputation as a proponent of nonviolence and ethnic reconciliation. On Friday, Xinjiang’s highest court rejected his appeal.

On Tuesday, at least three of the students are expected to stand trial on charges that their volunteer work for the news website Mr. Tohti ran constituted “splittism” or involved “revealing state secrets,” presumably because some of the articles they translated or posted were critical of government policies in Xinjiang, the turbulent homeland of China’s Turkic-speaking Uighur minority.

Human rights advocates have few illusions that the students will escape serious punishment. “This is potentially one of the biggest tragedies of China’s human rights of the past years,” said William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “These students are scapegoats being used in the prosecution of Tohti, but the evidence that they were part of a network that sought to subvert the state isn’t very compelling.”

Their prosecution, cloaked in intense secrecy, underscores the perils facing Uighurs amid a harsh clampdown on intellectual and religious life in Xinjiang, the vast borderlands that have become a geopolitical linchpin of China’s plans to expand its influence in Central Asia. In recent months, hundreds of young men across the region have been detained by Chinese security forces in a campaign that is ostensibly aimed at stanching jihadist activity but which critics say is often arbitrary and abusive.

In the days after Mr. Tohti’s conviction, three of his students, dressed in orange prison vests, appeared on state-run television to confess that they had exaggerated ethnic tensions on Uighur Online, the website run by Mr. Tohti. In his confession, Perhat Halmurat, the sociology student and a former editor of the website, blamed his teacher for an article he posted about a fight between a Han and Uighur student that had taken place on campus. “His unspeakable goal is to split the country,” he said.

Those who know Mr. Halmurat say he was popular among his classmates and proud of his Uighur heritage. “His bedroom is filled with awards that attest to his academic achievements,” a relative said.

Among the best-known detainees are Mutellip Imin, another sociology student, and his girlfriend, Atikem Rozi, a spirited young woman from the northern city of Hami. In 2012, Ms. Rozi caused a stir after she published an essay about the government’s refusal to issue her a passport, thwarting her plans to study abroad.

In the piece, first published by Uighur Online and later picked up by a Chinese newspaper, Ms. Rozi, 23, said she was likely being punished for an earlier social media post she had written about the frustrations of living in a Han-dominated world. “There is nothing to believe,” she wrote, “nothing to rely on, nowhere to go — pushed to the road of ruin.”

For Uighur academics and students, the sliver of space once available to discuss politics and matters of ethnic identity has all but disappeared. Many Uighur websites are blocked in China, and those that remain are scoured of the day’s most trenchant topics: the endemic poverty of southern Xinjiang, the economic disparity between Uighurs and Han, and the intrusive religious restrictions that many analysts say are stoking antigovernment violence.

Henryk Szadziewski, a senior researcher at the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, said the Internet had become a perilous place for Uighurs. “Even getting caught with a VPN on your computer is viewed as highly suspicious,” he said, referring to the software millions of Chinese use to circumvent government censors.

In a measure of the fear that pervades Uighur society, all the parents and students interviewed for this article asked that their names be withheld. “We know anything we say that sounds critical of the government can get us arrested,” said one second-year student at Minzu University who audited one of Mr. Tohti’s popular classes on Xinjiang.

Family members have not been allowed to see the detainees, nor have they been given information about the charges against them. Several said they were simply told to show up Tuesday at the same courthouse in Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi, where Mr. Tohti was convicted in a closed trial.

Wei Chunxia, a court spokesperson, refused to discuss when the trials might take place and referred a reporter to a phone number that was answered by a fax machine. Administrators at Minzu University declined to comment on the plight of their students.

Like Ms. Rozi, her boyfriend, Mr. Imin, was unafraid to publicly express his frustration over perceived injustices. Last year, Mr. Imin, 25, wrote a searing account of how the Chinese police stopped him at Beijing International Airport and prevented him from continuing his graduate studies at Istanbul University in Turkey. Hauled back to Xinjiang, he spent the next 79 days shuttling between hotel rooms and being interrogated about his relationship with Mr. Tohti.

He said he was made to hand over the passwords for his cellphone, email and Facebook accounts, and with the police listening in, forced to tell friends and relatives he was either in Turkey, or back in his hometown, Hotan, taking care of his mother.

Although most people assumed he was in police custody, he was told to insist the news articles they read about his detention were “fabrications by Xinjiang separatists,” he later said.

Eager to return to school and threatened with up to two years in jail, he said he signed a confession claiming he had been “blinded by Ilham Tohti,” and he acknowledged that his work as a volunteer for Uighur Online during his undergraduate days at Minzu had threatened ethnic harmony.

Once free, however, the police refused to give back his passport and national identification card, forcing him to remain in Hotan, an isolated city on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert. “In Xinjiang, if you don’t have an ID card, you can’t do anything, you can’t go anywhere,” he told Radio Free Asia last November. “I feel like I’ve been left high and dry.”

Furious, Mr. Imin in December published the account of his extralegal odyssey and included photographs of himself holding placards protesting what he called his enforced disappearance.

Less than six weeks later, he would vanish again, this time along with his girlfriend and his former professor.