Uyghurs Protest in China's Remote Xinjiang Region

Several hundred ethnic Uyghurs have staged protests in China’s remote and restive Xinjiang region following the death in custody of a prominent Uyghur businessman and philanthropist.

Uyghur girl in Hotan Scarves are sold at a silk factory in Hotan, in China's far west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in a file photo.
Several hundred ethnic Uyghurs have staged protests in China’s remote and restive Xinjiang region following the death in custody of a prominent Uyghur businessman and philanthropist.

Witnesses report protests at two locations in Khotan prefecture—in Khotan city March 23-24 and Qaraqash county March 23, RFA’s Uyghur service reports. Several hundred protesters were taken into custody, numerous sources said, and security remains tight.

Numerous sources said the demonstrations followed the death in custody of a wealthy Uyghur jade trader and philanthropist, Mutallip Hajim, 38. Police returned his body to relatives March 3 after two months in custody, saying he had died in hospital of heart trouble. According to an authoritative source, police instructed the family to bury him immediately and inform no one of his death.

The unrest comes two weeks after ethnic Tibetans in neighboring provinces staged riots against Chinese rule, prompting a deadly crackdown and countless arrests. Both Tibetans and Uyghurs—two of China’s major religious and ethnic minorities—have chafed under Beijing’s rule for the last six decades, and Chinese authorities have faced persistent accusations of repression and abuse. But while exiled Uyghur leaders have voiced support for the Tibetan protesters, the Uyghur unrest appears unrelated.

Protesters’ demands

In both areas, the protesters were demanding that authorities scrap a bid to ban head scarves, stop using torture to suppress Uyghur demands for greater autonomy, and release all political prisoners, sources said.

In Khotan, the crowd of several hundred protesters comprised mainly women. Hotel employees said police produced lists of alleged protesters, mainly women, and told them to report to police if anyone tried to register as a guest under any of those names, they said.

The protesters, who according to several accounts numbered around 600, began their march at the Lop bus station. An unknown number of men joined their 2-km (one- mile) march to the Big Bazaar shopping area, where they were surrounded by police who arrested around 400, the sources said. How long they were held was unclear.

The sources, who declined to be identified, reported six casualties, although no details were available. Police in Khotan city and its Chinbagh district, contacted by telephone, denied any protests had taken place.

Police say protest ‘peacefully dispersed’

In Qaraqash, a police officer on duty said protesters there “peacefully dispersed.”

“There were no injuries or deaths, and we persuaded the people gathered for the protest to leave,” the officer said. He told a reporter to phone back later for an accurate crowd count but hung up when the reporter rang back after 15 minutes.

Two additional sources in Khotan said they knew nothing of protests but had witnessed extraordinary security measures there, including an order for all local residents to remain in their homes.

One local worker told RFA’s Mandarin service that police were quick to quash what she described as riots in Khotan. “There was an immediate crackdown. Now everything is stable,” she said. “Protesters were arrested although I don’t know how many were. Now travel is back to normal.”

A local restaurant employee said: “Indeed there were some riots, but now it’s calm and the restaurant is open. Some rioters were arrested but I don’t know how many were arrested. The restaurant was closed for a few days while the riots were going on.”

But an employee at another restaurant had a different account. “The restaurant is still closed,” the employee said. “There’s no chef, and there aren’t any customers either.”

Tense area

Khotan, a rich oasis fed by a several rivers, is located on the southwestern edge of the historic Tarim Basin and about 2,000 kms (1,300 miles) from the regional capital, Urumqi.

Uyghurs, who number more than 16 million, constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in what is now Xinjiang in the late 1930s and 40s but have remained under Beijing’s control since 1949.

China has waged a campaign over the last decade against what it says are violent separatists and Islamic extremists who aim to establish an independent state in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which shares a border with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia.

In March 2008, Chinese authorities announced that they had foiled a plot by Uyghur terrorists targeting the Beijing Olympics. In the early 1990s, Uyghurs in Xinjiang launched large-scale riots, attacking and killing Chinese officials. Chinese authorities alleged that such acts killed 162 people and injured another 440, prompting a harsh crackdown.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Beijing took the position that Uyghur groups were connected with al-Qaeda and that one group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was a “major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.” The ETIM has denied that charge.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says authorities in Xinjiang maintain “a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang’s Uyghurs...At a more mundane and routine level, many Uyghurs experience harassment in their daily lives.”

“Celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, or showing one’s religion through personal appearance are strictly forbidden at state schools. The Chinese government has instituted controls over who can be a cleric, what version of the Koran may be used, where religious gatherings may be held, and what may be said on religious occasions.”

Original reporting from Istanbul, Washington, and Hong Kong by RFA’s Uyghur and Mandarin services. Translation by Omer Kanat and Jiayuan. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han


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