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Uyghur academic sentenced to life in Xinjiang

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Uyghur academic sentenced to life in Xinjiang

Rahile Dawut, a prominent Uyghur academic who disappeared six years ago at the height of the Chinese government’s crackdown in Xinjiang, has been given a life sentence in prison, according to a human rights group that has worked for years to locate her.

Dui Hua, a California-based group that advocates for political prisoners in China, said in a statement Thursday that the 57-year-old professor — who was convicted in 2018 on charges of endangering state security by promoting “splittism” — had lost an appeal of her sentence in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region High People’s Court.

At a regular press briefing, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning said she was “unaware” of Dawut’s case. “What I can tell you is that China is a law-based country and handles relevant cases in strict accordance with the law.”

A former professor at Xinjiang University and leading scholar on Uyghur folklore, she is among more than 300 intellectuals, artists and writers believed to be detained in Xinjiang, amid a government campaign ostensibly aimed at better assimilating China’s Muslim minority and promoting ethnic harmony. Rights groups have accused the Chinese government of committing “cultural genocide” by wiping out previously vibrant local Uyghur culture.

“The sentencing of Professor Rahile Dawut to life in prison is a cruel tragedy, a great loss for the Uyghur people, and for all who treasure academic freedom,” said John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation.

Dawut’s daughter, Akeda Pulati, said in the statement from the group, “I worry about my mother every single day. The thought of my innocent mother having to spend her life in prison brings unbearable pain. China, show your mercy and release my innocent mother.”

Last year, after a visit to Xinjiang and months of interviews, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights concluded that the Chinese government had committed violations that may amount to “crimes against humanity.”

Dawut’s case underlines the reach of the government’s ongoing campaign, where even public intellectuals firmly part of the establishment have been targeted.

A member of the Chinese Communist Party for many years, she received awards and grants from China’s Ministry of Culture, according to Dui Hua. Her work at Xinjiang University, which included the founding of an Ethnic Minorities Research Center in 2007, was also funded by the government.

In 2014, another prominent academic, Ilham Tohti, who taught at Minzu University in Beijing, was sentenced to life in prison.

Dawut’s family announced her disappearance in 2018 and, in 2021, former co-workers told Radio Free Asia that she had been imprisoned and sentenced but that no details as to the length of her sentence were given.

“Confirmation of Rahile’s life sentence should give us pause to grasp the ruin visited on family lives of China’s genocide,” Uyghur Human Rights Project’s director of research, Henryk Szadziewski, said.

“The Chinese state has taken a wrecking ball to any expressions of Uyghurness outside of its purview. As a gifted academic documenting Uyghur knowledge, targeting Rahile is no coincidence.”

—-By Lily Kuo in The Washington Post, Sept 22, 2023 at 7.50 am EDT