Uyghur academic, 57, jailed for life in China for ‘endangering state security’

‘The sentencing ... is a cruel tragedy, a great loss for the Uyghur people, and for all who treasure academic freedom’

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Monday 25 September 2023 12:49 BST
File: Rahile Dawut poses for a photo in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far west Xinjiang
File: Rahile Dawut poses for a photo in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far west Xinjiang (AP)

A court in China sentenced a prominent Uyghur scholar to life in prison on charges of "endangering state security", a rights group has said.

Rahile Dawut, 57, lost her appeal against her original conviction in 2018, the US-based Dui Hua Foundation said in a statement.

"This is believed to be the first time that a reliable source in the Chinese government has confirmed the sentence of life imprisonment," it said.

Prior to her conviction, Dawut was a professor at Xinjiang University and founder of the school’s Ethnic Minorities Folklore Research Center. She was internationally renowned for her work studying sacred Islamic sites, authoring books and lecturing as a visiting scholar abroad.

She disappeared in December 2017 amid a brutal government crackdown aimed at the Uyghurs, a Turkic, predominately Muslim ethnicity native to China’s northwest Xinjiang region.

Beijing has been accused of committing “crimes against humanity" against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups over the past decade through alleged widespread abuses, including mass incarceration, forced labour, torture and sexual assault.

The Xi Jinping administration has routinely denied the allegations of genocide made by the US and other Western nations as “the lie of the century.”

"The sentencing ... is a cruel tragedy, a great loss for the Uyghur people, and for all who treasure academic freedom," said John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation.

"I call for her immediate release and safe return to her family."

Dawut was a member of the Chinese Communist Party and reportedly received grants and awards from the culture ministry before her arrest.

She is one of over 300 prominent Uyghur intellectuals detained in Xinjiang, advocacy groups say. Critics say the government has targeted the scholars as a way to dilute, or erase, Uyghur culture, language and identity.

"I worry about my mother every single day," said Dawut's daughter Akeda Pulati, who is based in Seattle.

"The thought of my innocent mother having to spend her life in prison brings unbearable pain," she added. "China, show your mercy and release my innocent mother."

Activists have called on Western institutions, such as Harvard and Cambridge, where Dawut used to work to appeal for her release.

Mukaddas Mijit, a Uyghur ethnomusicologist based in Brussels, said Dawut had been an important advisor to her and many other scholars early in their careers.

“She was a guardian of Uyghur identity, and that’s something the Chinese government is after,” Ms Mijit told the Associated Press.

“They want to erase everything, and they want Uyghurs to forget how beautiful and colourful a culture they had.”

A 48-page report released by the United Nations in September 2022 said a million or more people from minority groups were forced into detention camps where many have said they were tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to abandon their language and religion.

This article was amended on 26 September 2023. It previously stated that a number of universities were calling for Prof Dawut’s release, however, that is inaccurate. Several academics from different institutions are calling on their universities to appeal for her release.

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