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China: High-Profile Uyghur Dissident Released Ahead Of Rice Visit

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

A high-profile Chinese dissident has arrived in the United States following her release from nearly six years of detention in China. Rebiya Kadeer, a member of China's ethnic Uyghur Muslim minority from the western Xinjiang Province, is reported to have been reunited with her husband and children following her arrival in Washington late yesterday. Rights groups say Kadeer's release, while welcomed, was motivated purely by political considerations.

Prague, 18 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Rebiya Kadeer, one of the world's most prominent advocates for China's Muslim Uyghur minority, said she will fight for her people's rights until her last breath. She made the statement after her arrival in Washington late yesterday, on her way to Chicago.

The 58-year-old human rights activist -- a former millionaire businesswoman -- was freed on medical grounds after six years in detention. Her release comes just a few days before the visit to China of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Kadeer has a heart problem and is due to receive medical treatment in the United States.

Yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan welcomed Kadeer's release, describing it as a high priority for the U.S. government. He also announced that Washington will not introduce a resolution criticizing China at this year's meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission.

But the United States did urge China to free all prisoners of conscience in the country.

Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International are also welcoming Kadeer's release. But at the same time, they say it does not mean China's human rights record is improving.

Brad Adams, HRW's director for Asia, said China should not be granted any political credit for releasing Kadeer. "Her release is welcomed because she should never have been in prison in the first place," he said. "It's absurd that she was arrested and convicted and that she spent so many years in prison. We also know that whenever the Chinese release people, they simply go find new people to victimize and put them back in jail. So it's a revolving door."

HRW has criticized Washington for not pushing forward a UN resolution criticizing China's human rights record.

Nicolas Becquelin, research director of Human Rights In China, spoke to RFE/RL from Hong Kong. He said China is playing what he calls "hostage politics." "They arrest many people, and they release just one before a high-profile visit to get the credit," he said. "It does nothing to address the systemic violation of human rights in China. But this is something that the [Chinese] authorities are very skilled at doing."

Turkic-speaking Uyghur separatists have been fighting to reestablish an independent state of East Turkestan in today's Xinjiang. They accuse the ruling Chinese of political, religious, and cultural repression.

Rebiya Kadeer was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of passing secret information to foreigners. She had reportedly sent articles from local newspapers in China to her husband in the United States. Chinese authorities reportedly began their crackdown against Kadeer after her husband, a critic of the government, fled China in 1996.

Becquelin said Kadeer was the highest-profile Uyghur political prisoner in China. He said she had been actively fighting for the rights of the Uyghurs, especially its women. "She represented her organization at the 1995 UN conference on women in Beijing. She had a sort of NGO in Xinjiang called the 1,000 Women who advocated education and support for women. She was even a member of the Chinese Consultative Political Assembly, which is an institution that does not have much power but is quite prestigious," Becquelin said.

Last year, Kadeer was awarded the Rafto Prize, named after Norwegian professor Thorolf Rafto, who spent most of his life fighting for human rights.

Becquelin said it is unlikely that Chinese authorities will allow Kadeer to return to her homeland. But he said that, even from abroad, she can still play an important role. "It remains to be seen whether she will continue -- once living in exile -- to press for the rights of the Uyghur people," he said. "But if she was to do so, I think that she has the international stature for bringing much more attention on the plight of the Uyghurs in China."

Human rights groups say many Uyghurs in China are the victims of human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, unfair political trials, torture, and summary executions.

Becquelin said Chinese crackdowns in the region intensified after the attacks of 11 September 2001. He said Uyghurs who are in favor of independence from China are often labeled as terrorists. "The repression is very acute. There's a number of people arrested or even executed," he said. "Just one month ago, a Uyghur poet was sentenced for 10 years in prison under separatism charges, just for writing a story in a local literature magazine. And the story was seen as having subversive content."

Becquelin said it will likely take weeks for people living in Xinjiang Province to hear the news of Kadeer's release. "For the moment, probably they don't even know about it because the Chinese government does that kind of release without any publicity," he said. "The Uyghurs in China will probably hear about it only in the coming weeks and months."

Reports say exiled Uyghur groups are rejoicing over the news.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at