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Fresh Reports Of Uighur Unrest In Xinjiang

As appeared in

In a report from Urumqi, the Government-controlled Xinhua news agency of China quoted a spokesperson of the local Government as stating on January 8, 2007, that the local Police destroyed a terrorist camp in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and killed 18 terrorists. One policeman was killed and another injured in an exchange of fire, which took place on January 5, 2007, in the mountains of Pamirs plateau in south Xinjiang.

2. The police claimed to have captured 17 terrorists and to be pursuing others. They also claimed to have seized 22 hand grenades and more than 1,500 others which the terrorists had not yet finished making. According to the police, the training camp was being run by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which was designated by the UN Security Council in 2002 as a terrorist organisation for purposes of action under the UN Security Council Resolution No.1373 relating to action against terrorist funding. The Security Council, which acts as the Monitoring Committee to monitor the implementation of Resolution No.1373, has to act by consensus in identifying terrorist organisations and international terrorists whose assets should be frozen.

3. It needs to be underlined here that while the Chinese project the ETIM as an international jihadi terrorist organisation, they opposed last year the designation of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD), the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) of Pakistan, as a terrorist organisation by the Monitoring Committee. They endorsed the Pakistani contention that the JUD is a charitable and not a terrorist organisation.

4. The Chinese claim that more than 1,000 ETIM members had been trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before 9/11.The former head of the ETIM, Hasan Mahsum, was reportedly shot dead by the Pakistani troops on October 2, 2003, in an anti-terrorism operation along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

5. The report of the incident of January 5, 2007, came in the wake of the dissemination of a message of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 to Osama bin Laden, on December 20, 2006, in which he had cited East Turkestan (Xinjiang) as an example of the historic Muslim lands presently under the occupation of non-Muslim countries and stressed the need to liberate them . However, there is so far no evidence to connect the dissemination of his message with the incident of January 5, 2007.

6. Since September last, there were reports of large-scale preventive detentions of suspected Muslim activists in Xinjiang and other provinces of China having a Muslim population. Such preventive detentions are an annual feature coinciding with the Ramzan fasting period and the subsequent Haj season. Since the early 1990s, the Muslim populated areas of China—-particularly the Xinjiang region—- have been witnessing spells of Muslim anger over the restrictions imposed by the Chinese on the observance of the holy fasting period and the holding of public prayers during the fasting period. Chinese nervousness over the public congregation of large numbers of Muslims during the fasting period have been responsible for these restrictions.

7. There has also been resentment among the Muslims—-again particularly in the Xinjiang region—over the ban on the construction of new mosques and over the demolition of some of the existing mosques of historical importance and construction of new ones in replacement as part of commercial buildings and shopping malls in order to remove any distinguishing Islamic architectural feature fom the mosques. The central mosque in Urumqi, a building with typical Muslim religious architecture, has been demolished and replaced by a modern brick building. It has a prayer hall located above a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and next to a Carrefour shopping market. The Uighurs allege that apart from settling a large number of Han Chinese in the Xinjiang region, the Chinese are systematically changing the skyline and the landscape in order to remove all architectural traces of Islam from the region. They are allegedly trying to make the towns of Xinjiang look like any other town in China, without anything unique about this place recalling its historic association with Islam. There is an Islamic college in Urumqui, but its syllabus is controlled by the Government and its teachers are approved by it. Only Government authorised editions of the Holy Koran are allowed to be used in the college.

8. The fasting period of 2006 saw an intensification of the unrest due to the restrictions imposed by the Chinese on the Uighurs travelling to Saudi Arabia via Pakistan for the Haj. This is the route preferred by the Uighurs because it is less costly. Last year, the Chinese started insisting that the Uighurs cannot get their Haj visas from the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad and that they should get their visas from the Saudi Embassy in Beijing. They also exercised pressure on the Saudi authorities not to issue Haj visas to the Uighurs through their Embassy in Islamabad.

9. In the towns of Xinjiang itself, many Uighurs protested over the eating establishments remaining open during the fasting hours and serving food to the Muslims. When some butchers refused to comply with the orders of the local authorities to keep their shops open during the fasting hours, the Chinese arrested 13 of them and prosecuted them on charges of black marketing.

10. The Chinese have also started a campaign against Mrs. Rebiya Kadeer, an Uighur human rights activist, who was released from detention under US pressure and allowed to migrate to the US in 2005. Her nomination by human rights groups in the West for consideration for the possible award of the Nobel Peace Prize last year was denounced by the Chinese as an insult to the Uighur people. The 56-year-old Rebiya was arrested by the Chinese in 1999 on charges of endangering national security by indulging in anti-State activities. She was also accused of income tax evasion and indulging in narcotics smuggling and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. In November last, the Chinese prosecuted two of her sons still living in Xinjiang on charges of tax invasion. One of them— Alimu Ahbudurimu— was jailed for seven years and fined. The other —Kahaer Ahbudurimu— was only fined.Mrs Kadeer had alleged in May last year that her two sons and a daughter had been taken into custody by the Chinese to prevent them from meeting a US Congressional team visiting Xinjiang. Before her arrest in 1999, Mrs Kadeer had owned a prosperous department store and started a charity helping other Muslim women find work.She had even been appointed to a seat on one of the Chinese government’s highest consultative bodies.Things changed for her in 1996 after her husband Sidik Rouzi managed to flee to the US. Her persecution, detention, trial and conviction followed thereafter.

11. Among other political prisoners still in detention in Xinjiang are: Tohti Tunyaz, who was studying in Japan. He was arrested in 1998 while on a trip to Xinjiang to gather material for his post-graduate thesis on Uighur history. While there, he had allegedly obtained a number of old documents, which Chinese prosecutors described as state secrets; Abdulghani Memetemin, a teacher and journalist who was sentenced on 24 June 2003 to nine years in jail for “providing state secrets for an organisation outside the country”; and Muhammed Tohti Metrozi, who had fled to Pakistan from Xinjiang in 2003 and sought the protection of the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had him kidnapped and handed over to the Chinese.

12. During the course of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001, the US is reported to have picked up at least 22 Uighurs and detained them in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba. It has not accepted repeated Chinese requests to hand them over to the Chinese authorities for interrogation regading their links, if any, with Al Qaeda. Five of them released by the US authorities last year were allowed to go to Albania.

13. The majority of the Uighurs are carrying on a campaign against the alleged Han colonisation of Xinjiang and the suppression of Islam there. They want the re-establishment of an independent state of East Turkistan. They do not support Al Qaeda and its pan-Islamic ideology. A small number, belonging to the ETIM, do support Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They are presently based in the Waziristan area of Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and enjoy the protection of the local tribals. There are also about 3,000 Uighurs living in the cities of Pakistan, who are protected by the Pakistani religious parties. They are strongly critical of China, but keep away from the ETIM. There have been instances of attacks on Chinese engineers working in Gwadar in Balochistan and in the FATA by suspected Uighur elements. It was because of fears of a possible threat from the Uighurs that President Hu Jintao of China did not visit Gwadar and Karachi during his visit to Pakistan in November, 2006.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd ), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and,presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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