By Zamira Eshanova/Bruce Pannier
This week in Beijing, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced that a Uighur Muslim group seeking independence from China has been added to the United States' list of terrorist organizations. On 28 August, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, had planned attacks on U.S. interests abroad. ETIM is the first Uighur group to make the U.S. terrorist list. Uighur organizations and human rights advocates say the U.S. decision has freed China's hands to crack down on the separatist group in the country's western region of Xinjiang.
Prague, 30 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, has become the first branch of the Uighur separatist group to be added to the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage publicly announced the decision on 26 August during a trip to the Chinese capital, Beijing. "After careful study, we judged that [ETIM] was a terrorist group and that it committed acts of violence against unarmed civilians, without any regard for who was hurt," Armitage said.
On 28 August, U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing, commenting on the decision, said that the Xinjiang-based group had been planning attacks against U.S. interests abroad, including the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. An article published on 29 August in the U.S. newspaper "The Washington Post," reporting on the ETIM allegations, cited Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov as saying there was reason to believe the Bishkek embassy had in fact been targeted, but he gave no details.
The U.S. decision came as a surprise for many Uighurs and international observers. Adding the little-known group to the U.S. terrorist list, they say, may have a negative impact on other Muslim Uighurs living in China's western Xinjiang province.
Uighurs, who, according to the most recent Chinese census, number some 7.2 million people, have been fighting for independent statehood since 1759, when China invaded the Uighur Kingdom of Eastern Turkestan, which they later (1876) renamed Xinjiang, meaning "new territory." The largest Uighur revolt was brutally suppressed by Chinese communists in 1945. But various Uighur organizations in Xinjiang and abroad have continued their struggle for independence -- a struggle the Chinese government has tried to characterize as terrorist-based and a threat to international security.
But Enver Can, president of the Munich-based East Turkestan National Congress, said Uighurs have never been religious extremists. Moreover, he said there are dozens of various Uighur organizations around the world, but that ETIM is virtually unknown. He questioned whether ETIM is even large enough to warrant classification as an independent Uighur group. "They are a small group of people who first fled to Central Asia, to neighboring Central Asian republics. After [governments there] began to deport some Uighurs back to China, the others who remained crossed to Pakistan and Afghanistan. There they received shelter and for different reasons, to settle their lives, they joined one group or another in Afghanistan," Can said.
Can, like many of his fellow Uighurs, fears the U.S. decision to include ETIM on its list of terrorist organizations will prompt the Chinese government to step up its crackdown on Uighurs, suppressing their efforts at a national and cultural revival in the name of fighting terrorism. "Putting an almost nonexistent Uighur organization on a list of foreign terrorist organizations would mean for China that it has received a green light. Because, since 11 September, despite warnings by President [George W.] Bush and [United Nations Human Rights Commissioner] Mary Robinson, and despite the appeals of international human rights organizations not to misuse the international struggle [against] terrorism to crack down on Uighurs, China has been stepping up its military presence in East Turkestan [Xinjiang]. [They are] intimidating people; arresting, detaining, and sentencing thousands of Uiyghurs; and censoring very much religious freedom, burning books. All this means that China will do everything possible [to crack down on Uighurs] if it sees tolerance [for its actions] from the West," Can said.
The U.S. decision on ETIM has caused serious concerns among international human rights organizations. Maya Catsanis, Amnesty International's press officer for the Asia-Pacific region, agrees that the inclusion of a nonrepresentative Uighur group like ETIM on the U.S. terrorist list may cause the already difficult plight of many Uighurs to deteriorate further.
She told RFE/RL the Chinese government had already begun to use the international war on terrorism to justify its repression of Uighurs. Catsanis described how the situation of Xinjiang Uighurs has changed over the past year. "It certainly has gotten worse since 11 September. There are estimates that around 3,000 people were detained between 11 September and the end of the year. Scores of people, at least, have been sentenced to long prison terms for so-called separatist offenses. There have been several executions, although information about these executions is very difficult to obtain because the Chinese government is no longer publishing who was executed and when," Catsanis said.
Catsanis said the U.S. government should be very careful not to let its own antiterrorism campaign give free rein to governments like China's to pursue their own campaigns against Uighurs and other groups looking for independence or the right to preserve their national and religious identity. "We certainly hope that the U.S. government will be vigilant in who it decides is a terrorist group and what is not a terrorist group. For the Chinese government, it is a bit of a coup, the labeling of this particular group. We would ask the U.S. government to be very, very, very careful on the information they receive about who is a terrorist and what it then does with that information. Because if it does proceed to ban other groups which are not terrorist, and indeed just people expressing their peaceful wish to secede, for example, from China, then it could signal a green light for the Chinese government to go ahead and increase its repression," Catsanis said.
Uighur activists and human rights defenders express deep concern that unless the U.S. makes a clear distinction between ETIM and the broader Uighur nationalist movement, the Chinese government will step up its propaganda against so-called Uighur terrorism worldwide and increase its use of violence to crack down on any kind of dissent among Uighurs in its Xinjiang province.