More than a century after the annexation of Eastern Turkestan by the Manchu Dynasty, Chinese authorities are still battling against Uighur separatists in the northwestern Xinjiang province. China is seeking the help of its Central Asian neighbors to clamp down on Muslim irredentism. But human rights advocates and analysts warn that, if not handled properly, the Uighur issue may turn into a time bomb for the entire Central Asian region. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:
Prague, 29 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last week a city court in Kyrgyzstan sentenced four people to death on charges of masterminding two deadly bomb attacks in the southwestern city of Osh three years ago.
Ali Tokhti, Akhmed Gynan, and Bakhramzhan Akhmet are ethnic Uighurs and citizens of both China and Turkey. The fourth person given a death sentence, Nazar Chotchayev, is an ethnic Karachai. Another Uighur, Ali Mansulu, was sentenced to 25 years in jail.
In May 1998, a bomb planted in a minibus in Osh killed two people and wounded 11 others. A few days later, another explosive device went off in a private house, leaving two people dead.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks. But authorities were quick to blame members of the estimated 50,000-strong Uighur diaspora living in Kyrgyzstan. The four sentenced last week were arrested in Kazakhstan and deported to Kyrgyzstan.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, defense attorney Gulnur Janalova said she will appeal the court decision because she thinks the entire case was fabricated.
"There is every reason to believe that they did not commit this crime. And there is absolutely no evidence that could justify the death sentence."
Uighurs are ethnic Turks based in China's northwestern Xinjiang province, a region known to the Uighurs as Eastern Turkestan.
The earliest record of an Uighur empire centered in Mongolia dates back to the eighth century. Most Uighurs converted to Islam between the 10th and the 15th centuries. They were successively conquered by the Kyrgyz and the Mongols before the Chinese invaded Eastern Turkestan in the mid-18th century.
For more than a decade in the 19th century (1864 to 1877), Uighurs and other Muslims periodically rioted against the Manchus. Later, after the dynasty definitively established its rule over Eastern Turkestan (in 1884) and renamed the region Xinjiang -- which means "newly conquered territory" -- tens of thousands of Uighurs fled to Central Asia to avoid retaliation.
Since the communists took over in China in 1949, Xinjiang has been the scene of a continual separatist struggle, punctuated by several waves of violent street protests and bombing campaigns. Coercion exerted by the communist regime has driven hundreds of thousands more Uighurs to Central Asia, where they now number up to a half a million.
Uighurs had lived peacefully in Central Asia for decades, but their situation dramatically deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In 1996, Russia and the three Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan signed a cooperation treaty with China known as the "Shanghai Five" agreement. They were joined earlier this year by Uzbekistan.
Human rights groups claim that by signing this treaty the signatories secretly committed themselves to extradite to China Uighur activists seeking political asylum in Russia and Central Asia.
In a statement released on Monday (26 March), the Vienna-based Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights in Exile says another, bilateral cooperation treaty was signed last January by Chinese and Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies.
The committee's project coordinator, Almaz Dyryldayev, tells RFE/RL that increased collaboration between Chinese and Central Asian security agencies is a matter for growing concern.
"The Chinese security services have signed a cooperation treaty with their Kyrgyz counterparts. This [treaty] is first and foremost related to the Uighurs. The Uighurs are struggling for independence in China. For that reason, the fight will be directed against those national minorities living on the territory of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan."
Human rights activists blame Chinese security services for the murder of Uighur leader Nigmat Bazakov last year in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz authorities announced yesterday (28 March) that they have charged four ethnic Uighurs with organizing Bazakov's murder.
Ethnic Uighur Erkin Alptekin is the general secretary of the Unrepresented People and Nations Organizations, a non-governmental organization based in the The Hague. In an interview with RFE/RL, Alptekin said that, although the clampdown on ethnic Uighurs in Central Asia is far less severe than persecutions carried out in Xinjiang, the Uighurs are increasingly concerned by the political and economic pressures they say China is exerting on its neighbors to repress Muslim separatism.
"The Uighurs do not feel very free in these [Central Asian] countries at the moment. Uighurs seeking political asylum in these countries have been handed over to the Chinese government and some of them have been executed. The Uighurs are treated as fundamentalists, terrorists, drug traders and the Central Asian [media] have been writing very negatively about [them]. They are using the same names [that Chinese media use to describe the Uighurs]."
Human rights activists are also concerned by persecutions they say are carried out against Uighurs in Uzbekistan.
Last month, an ethnic Uighur writer was arrested near Tashkent on suspicion that he belonged to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or Islamic Revival, an underground radical group with branches in most Central Asian states. A few days later, police announced that 56-year-old Emin Usman -- also known as Emin Usmanov -- had been found dead in his prison cell. But relatives claim that marks found on his body indicate that Usman was more likely tortured to death in jail.
Rights activists say that Uzbek President Islam Karimov has used the issue of Islamic extremism to crush any sign of dissidence in the country, banning opposition newspapers and throwing opposition leaders into jail.
The Hizb-ut-Tahrir seeks the creation of a caliphate, or independent Islamic state, in the region bordering Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Erkin Alptekin of the NGO defending unrepresented people and nations says he does not rule out possible links between underground Islamist groups and representatives of the Uighur diaspora.
"There is a nice saying in Central Asia [which goes:] 'A drowning person sometimes grabs onto a serpent.' I cannot exclude the possibility that some Uighurs might have joined forces with some of [these] organizations. Not to support their cause, but to learn the techniques of guerilla warfare and go home to fight against Chinese forces. But we don't have any evidence that would prove that."
Shirin Akiner is an analyst at the London-based School for Oriental and African Studies. She points out that a number of factors are making Central Asian governments increasingly nervous when it comes to the Uighur issue.
"It is understandable that Central Asians might regard the Uighurs as a threat. Firstly, if they were to succeed in creating an independent 'Uighurstan,' they would probably claim land not just from China, but also from the adjacent regions of the Central Asian states. Secondly, as things are today, they are in competition for jobs and so on with local people."
A third reason given by Akiner to explain what she describes as the "nervousness" of some of the Central Asian governments is the situation in Xinjiang. She says that religious extremism, terrorism, drug smuggling, and other criminal activities in the province "seem to be on the rise."
"My feeling is that these concerns are both justified and not justified. There are many social problems in Central Asian states today. It is too easy to blame 'outsiders' for problems that are actually domestic in origin. There are certainly Uighurs in Central Asia of whom state authorities would be justified in saying: 'They are troublemakers and they are breaking the law.' But is equally true that there are many Uighurs who are loyal and law-abiding citizens. Each case really has to be examined individually."
Rights advocate Alptekin warns Central Asian governments to be more careful when dealing with their national minorities. He says they would better help China defuse the tension in Xinjiang by listening to the grievances of the Uighur people.
(The Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)