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2011: The Uyghur Human Rights Year in Review

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Calls for independent and international investigations into Chinese claims of Uyghur terrorism receive very short shrift from Beijing. It therefore follows that whenever a serious incident occurs in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), which Chinese officials blame on a coordinated Uyghur terror threat, skeptics are never far away. That China uses the Uyghurs' Islamic faith to engineer accusations of terrorism in order to justify unremitting crackdowns only compounds the doubt.

The killing of seven alleged Uyghur terrorists and a police officer in a shootout on December 28 in Khotan prefecture ended an appalling year in the region. While Chinese state media reported that those killed were involved in a kidnapping and formed part of a larger group of 15 men who were heading to Central Asia to receive "jihadist training", Western media detailed a divergent narrative. According to local sources contacted by Radio Free Asia, the group, which included women and children, was fired on as they were fleeing China to seek refuge overseas from China's repressive religious policies.

The incident became another example of the lack of clarity in Chinese government accounts of Uyghur terrorism, as well as an illustration of the binary nature in interpreting such disturbing events. What seems to be agreed upon is that another violent and bloody chapter in the region's history has been played out and that we are nowhere nearer to resolving Uyghur issues. This conclusion could also be applied to two violent attacks that happened in the dusty summer streets of Khotan and Kashgar.

On July 18, Chinese official media reported that at least four people died in a clash in the city of Khotan. According to the official Xinhua news agency, "thugs" forced their way into a police station, where they took hostages and engaged in a gunfight that resulted in at least four dead. The World Uyghur Congress stated the shooting took place not at a police station, but in Khotan's main bazaar, when more than 100 local Uyghurs peacefully demonstrated against illegal seizures of land and the forcible disappearances of relatives by Chinese security forces during unrest in 2009. Police opened fire on the demonstrators, leading to a clash between demonstrators and police.

In Kashgar, a series of bomb and knife attacks occurred in the city on July 30 and 31 that left a reported 23 people dead when the dust finally settled. Chinese authorities condemned the attacks as terrorist and fingered the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as the perpetrators. In an interesting subplot to the attacks, a temporary rift opened between longtime friends China and Pakistan when the former suggested that the latter could do better at keeping "Uyghur terrorists" within its borders under control. Although the accusation was quickly denied in diplomatic circles, it revealed an interesting dimension to Beijing's diffusion of blame. Reaction to the attacks from the Uyghur community in exile picked up on this blindness to problems in China's backyard and asked questions as to why Uyghurs in Kashgar would take such drastic actions.

Whereas the official version of the December shootout in Khotan prefecture brought out questions regarding Chinese government accusations of a concerted Uyghur terror network, the suggestion that the Uyghurs involved could have been refugees highlighted a problem escalating throughout the year.

In a report released in September, the Uyghur Human Rights Project documented an upsurge in the number of Uyghur refugees to Europe since the July 5, 2009 unrest in Urumchi. From 50 interviews conducted with Uyghurs claiming political refuge in three European countries, the report documented the deteriorating human rights conditions Uyghurs had fled in East Turkestan, in addition to the difficulties and hardships faced by these asylum seekers in leaving China. They Can't Send Me Back: Uyghur Asylum Seekers in Europe found that almost without exception, Uyghurs were only able to flee China through bribing a range of corrupt officials.

A growing number of countries surrounding China found it acceptable to forcibly repatriate Uyghur refugees in 2011. Prior to 2011, Uyghurs were refouled from a variety of states in China's vicinity, such as Cambodia, Laos, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Burma and Nepal. In 2011, it was the turn of four other countries. On May 30, Ershidin Israel was forcibly repatriated from Kazakhstan despite an offer of settlement from Sweden. Israel had fled from China on foot in September 2009 after informing Radio Free Asia reporters about the beating to death of Uyghur Shohret Tursun. Tursun was beaten to death in September 2009 while in detention for his alleged involvement in the July 2009 unrest in Urumchi. Chinese authorities accused Israel of involvement in terrorism and demanded his return.

In August, Thailand handed over Nur Muhammed, who had fled after the July 5 unrest, Pakistan forcibly repatriated five Uyghurs, including a woman and two young children, and Malaysia deported 11 Uyghurs.

The five Uyghurs deported from Pakistan were reportedly blindfolded and handcuffed before being forced onto a flight on a Chinese airline departing from Islamabad. Radio Free Asia reported that the five Uyghurs may have been among a group that were on their way from Central Asia to Turkey, where they had hoped to seek asylum.

Malaysian authorities alleged that the 11 Uyghurs deported to China had been involved in human trafficking and were not refugees; however, charges of criminal activity have not been substantiated by evidence. The Malaysian authorities' claims with regard to the deported Uyghurs cannot be independently confirmed, because the UNHCR was not granted access to the men before they were repatriated.

In all these cases nothing has been heard of the refugees since their return to China. In a September 2 Human Rights Watch press release, Refugee Program director Bill Frelick said, "Uighurs disappear into a black hole after being deported to China." He added that "China appears to be conducting a concerted campaign to identify and press for the return of Uighurs from countries throughout Asia...China should stop pressuring other governments to violate the international prohibition against forced return."

With such a long reach across the Asian continent and dominance over society in the Uyghur region, 2012 brings little to dismiss the fear that Uyghurs will find any respite from Chinese government attention, even across international borders. The pressure that China has exerted on surrounding governments to forcibly repatriate fleeing Uyghurs seems ever more irresistible given current political and economic realities. The possible evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into an economic grouping should keep Central Asian states firmly focused on the assistance China requires to keep activist Uyghurs silent.

Chinese government claims of Uyghur terrorism and the Chinese state's chasing of Uyghur refugees across its borders require a strong international response. More can be done by mandated international agencies and concerned nations in the year to come. Independent investigations of possible extrajudicial killings and refuge from repression for fleeing individuals serve to illustrate to the globe's serial human rights abusers that the international human rights system guarantees the rights of everyone, even those people who exist in the shadows of others.