HONG KONG—Three webmasters, all members of the Uyghur ethnic minority, have been sentenced to jail for publishing content deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese government, according to a brother of one of the men.
The defendants are Dilshat Perhat, webmaster and owner of Diyarim; Nureli, webmaster of Salkin; and Nijat Azat, webmaster of Shabnam. They were sentenced last week in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China.
Dilmurat Perhat said his brother Dilshat Perhat received five years in prison, while Nureli and Nijat Azat received three years and 10 years, respectively, for “endangering state security.”
No official comment or confirmation was immediately available.
The verdicts were handed down in a series of closed trials at the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court, Dilmurat Perhat said. All three websites publish online in the Uyghur language, spoken by the predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority.
Dilmurat Perhat, another webmaster for Diyarim who currently lives in England, had recently refused to speak with the media about his brother for fear of creating a more difficult situation for him in custody.
In April, after Beijing appointed Zhang Chunxian the new secretary of the Xinjiang regional committee, the family was visited by Chinese authorities who warned them to “make him shut up or his brother would be lost” in jail.
But after learning of his brother’s sentence and after their father's recent death in the wake of Dilshat Perhat’s arrest in August last year, he agreed to a telephone interview.
“I have already lost my father and my brother, so now I will speak with the media,” Dilmurat Perhat said.
“To the media I would like to speak for freedom and justice for all Uyghur webmasters. I want the world media and other human rights organizations to call on the Chinese government to free all Uyghur webmasters and journalists.”
A friend of the family, who asked not to be named, said Dilshat Perhat’s mother was unable to attend her son’s trial because she was distraught over her husband’s recent death.
She refused to speak with the media because she remains concerned over her son’s treatment in jail.
The verdicts follow the sentencing last week of another prominent, moderate Uyghur journalist and webmaster for talking to foreign media about July 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang which left nearly 200 people dead, according to official estimates.
Gheyret Niyaz was sentenced on July 23 by the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court to 15 years in prison on charges of "endangering state security" and was given 15 days to appeal.
Niyaz, 51 and a former deputy director of the official Xinjiang Legal Daily, was employed at the official Xinjiang Economic Daily as a journalist at the time of his detention on Oct. 4, 2009.
His family received a warrant for his arrest four days later, relatives have said. Niyaz also served as webmaster and administrator of the Uyghur Online website, run by outspoken Uyghur economics professor Ilham Tohti.
In its 2009 annual report, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) noted that Uyghur Online and its staff had been uniquely targeted after the 2009 violence.
"In spring 2009, authorities shut down the website Uyghur Online, a multi-language news and discussion forum that addressed issues of ethnicity in China, and interrogated Beijing-based scholar Ilham Tohti, who runs the site," the report said.
"Authorities later detained Ilham Tohti in July after XUAR government chairperson Nur Bekri alleged that Ilham Tohti’s website contributed to incitement of rioting in Urumqi on July 5. Authorities released Ilham Tohti from detention on Aug. 2. The whereabouts of some other Uyghur Online staff members are reportedly unknown."
Following the region’s July 5, 2009 unrest, Nur Bekri took a firm stance against Uyghur webmasters’ publishing of information related to the incident.
“These websites publish so much bad news about what happened at the Shaoguan Toy Factory between Uyghur and Chinese workers,” he said, referring to a brawl in southern China that left two Uyghurs dead and touched off Uyghur protests in Urumqi.
“They say Uyghur workers died and carry similar kinds of news and this led to the July 5 event in Urumqi.”
Not long after Nur Bekri’s statement, Chinese police began arresting several Uyghur webmasters in Urumqi and other cities in the XUAR.
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of northwestern China.
Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in July 2009 in rioting that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Reported and translated from the Uyghur by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.