16 Years Without Answers: Ghulja Massacre Mourned by WUC
On 5 February 1997, a peaceful demonstration by fifteen to twenty thousand Uyghurs in the city of Gulja (in Chinese: Yining), Ili prefecture in East Turkestan. Rather than addressing the legitimate concerns of the protesters, the protests were brutally suppressed by Chinese security forces, whose actions killed at least 100 Uyghurs and injured many more. In a further act to suppress the truth of the events that day, more than 200 Uyghurs were sentenced to death, and approximately 4000 Uyghurs were arrested during and in the aftermath of the demonstration, where many remain disappeared today, likely dead or hidden in the People’s Republic of China’s notoriously hidden prison system.
The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and Uyghurs all around the world mourn the tragic events that took place this day. The Chinese authorities tried by every means to cover up the true extent of the massacre. They deployed more than 40,000 security forces to cut off Ghulja from the outside world in order to prevent leaks of information. Those who still dared to pass on information and were caught doing so had to expect long prison sentences. After the suppression of the demonstration, the Chinese government intensified its repression of the Uyghurs, as well as its persecution of the Uyghurs. The government subjected Uyghurs to especially intense religious persecution and repression.
The events that took place that day – and the aftermath – are reminiscent of what took place on 5 July 2009 in Urumqi, and stood as a stark reminder to those who suffered from the Ghulja incident of the lack of freedoms and enjoyment of human rights that they continued to have 12 years on. In 2011, WUC President Ms Rebiya Kadeer said that the 5 July 2009 events would become the “Second Ghulja”, and nearly 4 years later, the same questions left unanswered from the Ghulja Massacre remain unanswered for the 5 July 2009 Urumqi crackdown.
On the 16th Anniversary of the Ghulja Massacre, Ms Kadeer said: “I have myself personally seen the destructive effect that the Ghulja massacre had on countless Uyghurs and their families. Even today, as the PRC is coming to be one of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, these injustices and human rights abuses continue unabated, with little hope of them relenting and many questions unanswered.” To date, 16 years after the massacre, the security forces who killed so many Uyghur demonstrators on 5 February 1997 and the government officials who ordered them to do so still have not been held accountable.
In view of the significance of the Ghulja massacre on the Uyghur people, and the shock waves it sent around the globe, the WUC asks all to mourn with us today in solidarity with the victims. As the 22nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council is aptly approaching this month, the WUC calls on the international community to use all diplomatic avenues to strongly raise these issues with the PRC. The WUC also calls on the PRC to hold all those responsible to account, so as to at least find some closure for those who have suffered 16 years of impunity.
Gulja 5 February 1997:
The demonstration in February 1997 in Ghulja was motivated by increasing suppression of Uyghur culture and religion in the region of Ghulja, including the traditional Uyghur gatherings called meshrep which had again been banned by the Chinese authorities after having been officially allowed only in 1994. The Uyghurs in the area had revived the meshrep in an attempt to revive Islamic culture and to prevent social problems such as alcoholism and drug abuse. The leaders of the local Uyghur communities had also organised soccer leagues, which were also then banned by the authorities and the sports fields were destroyed.
The Uyghurs in Ghulja demonstrated on the morning of 5 February 1997 to demand the release of hundreds of young Muslim believers who had been detained the night before (the holy month of Ramadan) while engaging in their traditional prayers in their homes. The demonstration was stopped by the police, who then began to shoot into the crowd without reason or provocation and killed demonstrators. Under the accusation of “extremism, terrorism or separatism” hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were arrested. In the afternoon, friends and relatives of those arrested in the morning organized a second demonstration to demand their release. Again, the security forces brutally suppressed the demonstration and again arrests of hundreds of people were arrested. According to eyewitnesses, the detained people were beaten, mistreated and tortured in custody which led to the death of some detainees.
The demonstrations continued on the next day. Thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the Chinese government and the oppression of the Uyghur people. Again, many people were arrested.
The Chinese government has claimed that the protests were acts of “terrorism”. Routinely, the Chinese authorities equate peaceful Uyghur dissent with the so-called “three evils” (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) in order to justify their human rights violations against the Uyghur people.
Urumqi 05 July 2009:
The human rights situation of the Uyghur population in East Turkestan has been dire for decades and has even worsened since the July 2009 protest and ethnic unrest in Urumqi, the capital of East Turkestan. The July 2009 protest began with a peaceful demonstration by Uyghurs in Urumqi that was brutally and lethally suppressed by Chinese security forces. The Uyghurs were protesting against a lack of government action in regard to a deadly attack on Uyghur factory workers in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province in the south of China. The violent and illegal reaction of the Chinese security forces to the peaceful protest led then to ethnic violence and riots between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, during which hundreds of Uyghur and Han Chinese civilians were killed. According to data published by the Chinese Xinhua news agency, 197 people were killed, but the World Uyghur Congress estimates – based on eyewitness reports – that more than 1000 people died in the riots. However, until today, the exact death toll on both sides is not clear since so far no independent investigation of these events has been undertaken.
For more information see also:
Gulja 5 February 1997:
Thirteen years on, the victims of the Ghulja Massacre remain unaccounted for
Uyghur American Association Press Release, 5 February 2010
Protest marks Xinjiang ‘massacre’
Al Jazeera, 06 February 2007
A decade on, the Ghulja Massacre is yet to be redressed
Uyghur American Association Press Release, January 10, 2007
The Ghulja Massacre: “We refuse to forget”
Uyghur Human Rights Project Press release, February 3, 2006
China: Remembering the victims of police brutality in Gulja, Xinjiang on 5-6 February 1997
Amnesty International, 4 February 2005
Das Massaker von Gulja. Eine brutale Strafaktion Pekings gegen die Uiguren
GFBV Memorandum, February 2000
Urumqi 5 July 2009:
Repression in China- Roots and Repercussions of the Urumqi Unrest
UNPO Report, November 2009
“We Are Afraid to Even Look for Them”: Enforced Disappearances in the Wake of Xinjiang’s Protests
Human Rights Watch Report, October 2009
After the disturbances in Urumqi: Persecution of Uyghurs in China continues
Society for Threatened Peoples Report, May 2010
Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices from the 2009 Unrest In Urumchi
Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) Report, July 2010
“Justice, justice”: The July 2009 protests in Xinjiang, China
Amnesty International Report, 2010