An Uyghur historian who ran a popular website has been sentenced to jail following a closed trial, making him the latest online activist to be imprisoned following the July 2009 ethnic violence in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Tursunjan Hezim, 38, was ordered jailed for seven years by the Aksu district court after a trial, which his family was not allowed to attend, sources said.
The family was informed of the sentence, imposed in July last year, but not of the charges that were leveled against him, according to Erkin Sidik, an Uyghur scholar living in the United States who knows Hezim.
A source who asked to remain anonymous said the whereabouts of Hezim, a former high school history teacher and owner of the popular Uyghur-language website Orkhun, were not known after police arrested him at his home in Aksu a few days after deadly ethnic riots erupted in Xinjiang on July 5, 2009.
Police also took away his computer and other belongings, the source said.
Although Hezim was held by the authorities after the bloody violence, news of his conviction and sentencing had not been known to the public until recently, the source said.
A member of Hezim’s family reached by RFA refused to comment on the case. The director of the school where Hezim taught also refused to comment, but virtually confirmed that Hezim is in jail.
Website shut down
The Orkhun website was closed down in July 2009 as Chinese authorities shut off the Internet in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for 10 months following the ethnic violence in the capital Urumqi.
The website, named after the homeland of ethnic Uyghurs' Turkic ancestors, had published mostly scholarly articles about Uyghur culture and history.
The site remains shut down, but during the three years it was running it became one of the popular Uyghur websites in Xinjiang and overseas. Despite censorship controls, Uyghur scholars, intellectuals, and students had visited and posted comments on the website.
The webmasters of three other popular Uyghur websites—Shabnam, Diyarim, and Salkin—had also been sentenced to jail for various terms by a court in Urumqi in July 2010 on charges of “endangering state security.”
In addition, Gheyret Niyaz, editor of the website UyghurOnline, was ordered jailed for 15 years for an interview he gave on the 2009 violence, which erupted after years of what Uyghurs resent as heavy-handed rule from Beijing and the influx of large numbers of majority Han Chinese migrants.
Hezim studied in the history department of Xinjiang University from 1991 to 1996. After graduation he returned to his hometown of Aksu where he taught history at an Uyghur-language high school.
"The leadership at his school banned him from teaching history in 2006 and changed his position to doorman of the school,” said Sidik, who met Hezim in 2007 when he visited Aksu.
“He is a very knowledgeable and moral person and a good Uyghur intellectual ... He is one of the young Uyghur scholars researching Uyghur history. He has published and prepared many articles on Uyghur history and local regional history," Sidik said.
Aside from his research activities, Hezim also participated in online discussions on Uyghur websites such as UyghurOnline and Bostan under the pen name Yawuz.
Reported and translated by Nabijan Tursun for RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.