Two senior Uyghur education officials in Xinjiang and a well-known writer who had disappeared from public view in early 2017 without explanation have turned out to be serving life sentences on separatism charges, RFA’s Uyghur Service has learned.
The three men—former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau Satar Sawut, writer and critic Yalqun Rozi, and former Xinjiang University President Tashpolat Teyip—vanished last year amid rumors they had run afoul of China’s increasingly hard-line policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
In Sawut’s case, a message posted on a Chinese website in February 2017 said he was undergoing investigation for a serious breach of the party discipline. The post did not say what Sawut was accused of doing. Rozi’s arrest had been the subject of rumors for the past two years, but no witnesses or documents were ever produced to determine his fate.
RFA’s Uyghur Service received a letter last month from an anonymous former official in Xinjiang. The author of the letter said he was undergoing mandatory political education, and he and fellow cadres were shown a political study film made by the police.
The anonymous official wrote that the part of the propaganda film that covered the alleged crimes of Uyghur intellectuals and officials showed Sawut and Rozi among five men wearing prison uniforms and described as separatists.
The film said Sawut received the death penalty, suspended for two years, while Rozi was sentenced to life in prison, said the letter, which was titled “A Cry from the Homeland.”
According to the letter, Rozi’s writing were used as evidence that he was promoting Turkism—a reference to Uyghurs’ historic cultural and linguistic connections to Turkic-language speaking people in Central Asia and Turkey.
A second letter received by RFA on Sept. 20 echoed the first, saying that in one middle school in the XUAR, all the students and teachers were called for a political study meeting, and were shown a police documentary film on six members of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau having been sentenced to life in prison for attempting to split the country.
The six included Sawut, Rozi and Teyip, the former Xinjiang University president, as well as the former president of Xinjiang Medical University, Halmurat Ghopur.
Contacted by RFA, the director of the political department of the Xinjiang Association of Literature and Art confirmed the contents of the film described in the letters.
Sawut, Rozi, Teyip and the others were “all one group who shared the same opinion,” said the official.
“Their approach was against our party—their thoughts showed separatist tendencies. They took advantage of their leading position in pursuing their goal,” the official said.
“Our party and government spent many years investing in them and trusting them—placing them in important positions but they took a path against the party's ideology,” he added.
The film, he said, was “mainly about what the person has done, and how he has breached the law and regulations.”
Speaking of Teyip, the official said “he must have taken every opportunity in pursuing his goal with the people who shared his ideology within the country and abroad.”
Police confirm sentences
Responding to an RFA telephone call to a local police station in Bulaqsu township near the city of Kashgar in far western Xinjiang, a police officer from the Bulaqsu police station confirmed that he had watched the one-hour documentary at political meetings.
The film spelled out the sentences handed down to the Uyghur intellectuals, the officer confirmed.
For Sawat, “a two-year suspended death penalty,” he said.
For Rozi, he added, “a life sentence.”
RFA found a Chinese-language document on the internet that carried a notice that from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional Education Supervision Bureau that said Rozi retired from his position in February 2015 for medical reasons. It also said he was arrested on Dec. 12, 2016 by security authorities in the XUAR capital Urumqi for attempting to incite separatism and lost his pension and other benefits because of the arrest.
Teyip’s brother, Nury Teyip, an activist living in the U.S., told RFA he had waited more than two years for information on his missing brother.
He quoted his brother as saying in their last conversation that he wanted “reorganize and restructure the teachers.”
“We are falling behind because of ignorance, and it is my goal to correct this problem,” Nury Teyip quoted his brother as saying.
“I believe that my brother managed to achieve what he set out to do. As a result, the Chinese government wasn’t pleased, as they want to eliminate people like my brother who has the ability to lead others,” he said.
“During the process of achieving his goals he became well known, at the same time he also became one of the hated figures of the Chinese government. I am very proud of my brother,” added Nury Teyip.
Qutluq Almas, a former lecturer at Xinjiang University now living in exile in the U.S., said China appears to be working methodically to undermine Uyghur identity.
“There are mainly two elements for them being the target, one is their profession, two is their love for their own people,” he told RFA.
“The Chinese government first eradicates the best brains before continuing to eliminate the rest of the population in stages,” said Almas.
Chinese authorities have in recent years campaigned against and punished what they call “two-faced” Uyghur cadres, accusing local ethnic officials of paying lip service to Communist Party rule in the XUAR, while secretly chafing against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.
While the three Uyghur educators were sentenced in a court, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have since April 2017 been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
On Tuesday, possibly in response to international condemnation over the camp incarcerations without legal due process, the Xinjiang government added to its anti-extremism regulations put into effect in March 2017 new clauses that refer to vocational training centers–in effect, legalizing a program authorities had until recently denied the existence of.
"Governments above the county level can set up education and transformation organizations and supervising departments such as vocational training centers, to educate and transform people who have been influenced by extremism," Reuters news agency quoted one of the clauses as saying.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture, food customs and language of the Uyghur people.
While China blames some Uyghurs for terror attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur and translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.