China’s recent sentencing of two high-level Uyghur officials to death has stunned critics who have questioned the legality of the decision given the lack of evidence against them and say the move shows that even Uyghurs loyal to the Communist Party cannot escape persecution in Xinjiang.
On April 6, authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) announced that Shirzat Bawudun, former director of the justice in the XUAR High Court and deputy secretary of the XUAR Political and Legal Committee, and Sattar Sawut, former director of education of the XUAR, had been given two-year suspended death sentences for “separatism” and “terrorism.”
Additionally, they announced that the court sentenced both of them to permanent deprivation of political rights and confiscation of all personal property.
While several other prominent Uyghurs have been given death sentences since authorities in the region launched a campaign of extralegal incarceration that has seen up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held in a vast network of internment camps beginning in early 2017, this marks the first occasion on which high-ranking government officials have been given the death penalty.
Though the High Court announced the verdicts on April 6, they released no additional information about when and where the trials took place, how they proceeded, and when the verdicts were actually decided.
The sentences, which come as the U.S. government and several Western parliaments have designated rights abuses in the XUAR as part of a state-backed policy of genocide, have led observers to further question the severity of the situation in the region, where the legal system has long been used as a tool of oppression by the state.
Sophie Richardson, China director at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told RFA’s Uyghur Service that there is no such thing as a fair trial in the XUAR and called on the government to release its evidence against the two officials.
“Let me be very clear: Human Rights Watch is utterly and totally opposed to the use of the death penalty in many circumstances, because it is fundamentally cruel and unusual,” she said.
“We also know very well that most people in Xinjiang do not get anything even remotely resembling a fair trial.”
In particular, she pointed out the absurdity of how harsh Sawut’s punishment was, given that he was accused of including “extremist” content in children’s primary school books that had previously been approved by censors. He had overseen publication of textbooks, all government approved.
“The idea that somebody should get a life sentence for a textbook that was published 13 years ago is crazy—there’s no other word to describe it,” she said.
“And I think it’s imperative that the Chinese government make all of the evidence available. I’d like to know whether these two men had lawyers of their own choice, whether they had any ability to see the evidence that was presented against them, or really contest the charges.”
‘Separatism’ and ‘terrorism’
According to the limited information shared by the High Court, Bawudun was accused of “long-term planning to split the country,” “participating in the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and betraying the interests of the people and the country,” and “providing illegal intelligence to people outside the borders [of China].”
ETIM, which was formerly on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, was removed late last year because there was “no credible evidence” that the group continued to exist.
Sawut was also described as being “two-faced”—a term applied by the government to Uyghur cadres who pay lip service to Communist Party rule in the XUAR, but secretly chafe against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group—and having hidden in key a position for a long time.
In his previous post prior to his arrest, Sawut oversaw the Bureau of Education’s work in compiling and publishing Uyghur language and literature textbooks for primary and secondary students. He has been accused of insisting on the inclusion of content that promoted “ethnic separatism,” “violence,” “terrorism,” and “religious extremism” in these books, as well as of “attempting to break up the country through ‘de-Chineseification.’”
Teng Biao, a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer in the U.S., told RFA that the “crime” of “splittism” is a tool China has long used to crack down on opposition. In this case, however, the tool is being deployed against cadres within the very system of government itself.
“The Chinese government often uses the charges of “splitting the country” or “subverting state power” or “inciting division” or “inciting subversion of the country” to combat dissidents, and increasingly as a way of achieving its political goals,” he said.
Teng also noted that although Bawudun and Sawut were previously in favor as part of the state apparatus, they are now paying the price for being Uyghur in a period when China appears to be working toward eradicating that distinct identity through genocidal policies.
“On the one hand, they’re political and legal cadres within the Communist Party system, but on the other hand, they’re Uyghurs and they identify with the religious and cultural identity of their ethnic group,” he said.
“These two roles are in complete conflict with one another. It must be very painful for them. So, I think it’s in this context that the Communist Party used some of their practices, statements, and opinions as grounds for the crime of ‘splittism.’”
Attack on Uyghur language and culture
The Uyghur language and literature textbooks Sawut oversaw, which the Chinese government has claimed are “terrorist,” “separatist,” and “poisoning” to young students, were published in 2003 and used in literature classes until 2016.
U.S.-based Kamaltürk Yalqun, the son of editor-in-chief of the XUAR Education Press and renowned Uyghur literary critic Yalqun Rozi, told RFA that if there were actually any “problems” in these textbooks, they would have been discovered and dealt with in the authorities’ annual reviews of educational materials.
“Whereas other books might be published after going through the censors once or twice, [authorities] established special committees for the textbooks and censored them over and over again, at the Bureau of Education, at the XUAR [government] level,” he said.
“These textbooks were used for more than a decade and no major problem was discovered in them. That they were suddenly, in 2016, as soon as Chen Quanguo became Party Secretary [of the XUAR], made out to be problematic books doesn’t actually prove that anything was wrong with them. If there had been problems, they would have emerged in the multiple rounds of censors the books went through every year.”
Yalqun’s father Rozi was arrested in 2016, an early target of what would go on to become a mass incarceration campaign targeting allegedly “two-faced” members of the Uyghur intellectual and cultural elite, and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for his involvement in the publication of these textbooks.
He said he believes that the Chinese government’s real intention in arresting and sentencing textbook compilers, including his father, is to eliminate the Uyghur language and culture.
Reported by Erkin for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.