Chinese authorities have freed a U.S.-educated Uyghur linguist who sought to set up schools to promote the ethnic minority language in the Xinjiang region after more than a year in prison, according to a close relative.
Abduweli Ayup was ordered jailed 18 months and fined 80,000 yuan (U.S. $13,000) for “illegal fundraising” in August by the Tengritagh (in Chinese, Tianshan) district court in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi after being detained for a year.
He was released on Nov. 27 after his partners in an education venture, Muhemmet Sidik and Dilyar Obul, who were convicted in the same trial, appealed their verdict, the relative said, speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service on condition of anonymity.
State media did not report the release of Ayup, who had not appealed his sentence.
Uyghurs in exile have suggested that the charges against Ayup and his partners were politically motivated, after the linguist’s essays and lectures on maintaining the Uyghur language in schools drew widespread support in China’s Uyghur community.
“After Abduweli’s trial, our family assumed that he would be released in February 2015, based on the decision of the court [which included his time already spent in detention], but the authorities freed him three months before the end of his jail term,” he said.
The conviction of Ayup, who has a Master’s Degree in Linguistics from the University of Kansas, had received international attention.
A group of supporters in the United States launched a petition on MoveOn.org to publicize his case, receiving hundreds of backers from across the globe. They also set up a Facebook page “Justice for Uyghur Linguist Abduweli Ayup” to highlight his plight.
The petition called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to protect the rights of ethnic minorities, among other requests.
The mostly Muslim Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Ishat Hesen, vice president of the Uyghur American Association, said he found it strange that Ayup had been convicted of illegal fundraising instead of crimes against the state or separatism.
But he said the authorities were likely eager to avoid drawing international attention to his case in the same way that the September sentencing of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti to life in prison for "separatism" had invited criticism from rights groups and Western governments.
“Ilham Tohti’s case was one of the big lessons for the Chinese government,” Hesen said.
The education venture partners, Sidik and Obul, who together with Ayup had set up Mother Tongue International Co. to push for Uyghur language education in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, had been sentenced to jail for up to 27 months and fined up to 130,000 yuan (U.S. $21,000).
They were “unsatisfied” with their verdicts and had appealed to the Urumqi Intermediate Court, the relative said.
“We don’t know what the intermediate court’s ruling was on their appeal, but either way, my uncle was released from prison three months early.”
Ayup’s elder sister told the relative that the partners’ prison terms had been reduced, but it was unclear by how many months, adding that the two men were being held in Liudawan prison in Urumqi.
He said that the day after his uncle’s release, Ayup had traveled from the capital to his home in Kashgar’s old city, where he was ”recovering from his trauma” along with his wife and two daughters.
“I heard that [his] mood is normal, but he is thin and his body is weak, so he needs some time to recover,” he said.
An active promoter of the Uyghur language in Xinjiang, where Beijing is strongly pushing the use of Mandarin Chinese in schools, Ayup established a Uyghur-language kindergarten in Kashgar, China’s westernmost city, together with his business associates in the summer of 2012.
Authorities said they closed down the school in March 2013 because it was operating “without complete documentation,” though they later let it reopen on a smaller scale. They refused the trio’s permission to open another school in Urumqi.
Ayup said he plans to return to teaching at the kindergarten in Kashgar, which his wife had continued to operate in his absence, according to his relative.
But he has abandoned his dream of opening a Mother Tongue school in Urumqi, he added.
The relative said Ayup will have his work cut out for him in trying to rebuild the status of the kindergarten, which saw a major drop in attendance after he was jailed.
“After [he] was detained, his wife took over the responsibilities of the daily work and teaching at the kindergarten. The local authorities warned her several times that they would close the kindergarten, but later they let her continue her work,” he said.
“The problem was that Uyghur parents would dare not send their children to the kindergarten, because they worried the government would interfere in the school’s affairs after my uncle was jailed. The number of children decreased, but my aunt insisted on continuing the kindergarten.”
Avoiding a political tone
“[Ayup’s] writings and lectures aroused strong feelings in the Uyghur community in the Uyghur Region. After he was detained in August, there was a lot of reaction from Uyghurs and international human rights organizations,” Hesen said.
“I think the Chinese authorities would never want to create a second Ilham Tohti among the Uyghurs, so the court avoided taking a political tone on [Ayup’s] case and convicted him of illegal fundraising.”
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.