An ethnic Muslim Uyghur who plowed his car into a crowded part of Tiananmen Square last week in what the Chinese authorities called a deadly terrorist act may have been angered by a police raid on a mosque in the troubled Xinjiang region, a former official from his home village said Wednesday.
Usmen Hesen, who was killed in the crash together with his wife and mother who were also in the vehicle, had publicly vowed to avenge the police raid on the mosque in his Yengi Aymaq village in Xinjiang’s Akto county, former village chief Hamut Turdi said.
“I think it is highly possible that Usmen Hesen did this to take revenge for our villagers,” Turdi told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
He said that Hesen, aged 33, was furious when Chinese police entered the Pilal mosque compound and tore down the courtyard, which the authorities had termed as an illegal extension of the prayer house built on funds collected from the village community.
According to Turdi, Hesen had donated a significant portion of the donated funds.
“This is one reason that he might have carried out the Tiananmen attack,” which had also left two tourists dead and injured dozens at the popular site and symbolic heart of the Chinese state, Turdi said.
He pointed out that the Pilal mosque raid took place exactly a year before the crash in Tiananmen Square on Oct. 28—“which also leads me to believe this” motive behind the alleged attack.
The Yengi Aymaq village is situated in Ujme town under the jurisdiction of the Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uyghurs who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies.
Turdi, 55, who had worked as Yengi Aymaq village chief for 22 years before he was ousted by authorities over the Pilal mosque incident, recollected Hesen making an emotional speech soon after some 100 police officers surrounded the mosque as workers demolished the courtyard.
Hesen made the speech as he told the mosque community to stand down after they argued with the armed police.
“At that time, Usmen Hesen jumped in and persuaded the community to disperse by saying, ‘Today they have won and we have lost because they are carrying guns and we have nothing—but don’t worry, one day we will do something ourselves’,” Turdi said.
“As Usmen Hesen finished his emotional speech, [his mother] Kuwanhan Reyim went to him crying, and hugged and kissed his forehead because of her pride in him. The crowd was also moved to tears and retreated.”
When the mosque community backed down, the demolition team bulldozed the mosque’s courtyard and destroyed part of the walls, Turdi said, adding that they also removed 12 carpets from the mosque and disconnected the building’s water supply and heating system.
Hesen left Yengi Aymaq village the next day and never returned, he said.
The Chinese authorities have blamed the little-known East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) militant group for the Tiananmen raid. Many Uygurs refer to Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as East Turkestan.
Last week, a source who claims to know Hesen’s family suggested that he may have been on a deadly revenge attack after losing a family member during the 2009 bloody riots between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
Another source—Hesen's school classmate—claimed his younger brother had died in a mysterious traffic accident several years ago that had been blamed on the majority Han Chinese or the Chinese authorities.
Thousands of Uyghurs had gone missing since they were arrested in large sweep operations following the Urumqi riots, Uyghur groups have claimed.
Turdi said Hesen’s village community had collected around 200,000 yuan (U.S. $32,800) over three years to build the Pilal mosque and successfully applied for a permit to construct it in 2011.
After the mosque was built in mid-2012, he said, the community raised another 30,000 yuan (U.S. $4,900) in August that year to lay a concrete floor in the courtyard and build a wall around it to keep the area clean for performing burial rituals.
But when the courtyard project was completed, local authorities ordered it torn down because the mosque community had not applied for a new permit to build it.
Xinjiang has seen a string of violent incidents in recent years as Beijing tightens security measures and extends house-to-house raids targeting Uyghur families.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.