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2012 - The Uyghur Human Rights Year in Review

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As people across the globe shared their hopes and dreams for 2013 with families and friends at the turn of the New Year, reports that Uyghur writer Nurmemet Yasin had died in Shaya prison 'sometime in 2011' were still unconfirmed. The confusion surrounding Nurmemet Yasin's condition serves as a damning indictment not only on the treatment of Uyghur political prisoners by the Chinese authorities, but also on the lack of information made available on them to the outside world. Secrecy is so pervasive in the Chinese penal system that even when a Uyghur serves their sentence, as was the case in 2012 with website administrator Nureli Obul, it remains unknown if they were actually released.

The reason Nurmemet Yasin is in prison in the first place is no mystery if you are acquainted with Chinese government attitudes to Uyghur freedom of expression. The 37-year-old author was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2005 for penning an allegory of the Uyghur people's yearning for freedom entitled Wild Pigeon. The harsh sentencing shocked many at the time, but it now looks like the standard for Uyghur writers, such as Gheyret Niyaz and Gulmire Imin, who upset the authorities.

Uyghurs also tasted official retribution if they attempted to cross Chinese borders to seek refuge from government repression. In January 2012, Radio Free Asia described how Musa Muhammad, one of 20 Uyghur asylum seekers forcibly deported from Cambodia on December 19, 2009, had been sentenced to 17 years in prison by a Chinese court during a closed trial. Citing unconfirmed reports, the Uyghur American Association said two other Uyghur refugees forcibly deported from Cambodia, Nurahmet Kudret and Islam Urayim, had also been sentenced, but to life in prison.

By the end of the year, in December 2012, while human rights organizations were calling for the release of information on the other Cambodia deportees, Radio Free Asia also reported the sentencing of 11 Uyghurs forcibly returned from Malaysia in 2011. The 11 Uyghurs were convicted on charges of 'separatism' and the sentences ranging from 11 months to 15 years were mostly liked passed in the summer of 2012. That the judicial processes involving Cambodia and Malaysia Uyghurs fell far below international standards gave belated credence to the claims of human rights groups that the deportees would not receive a fair hearing in China.

Forced deportations have also occurred from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Laos in recent years and demonstrate that China is not afraid to flex its political and economic muscle to chase Uyghurs across its frontiers. The pressure exerted on China's neighbors to return Uyghur refugees not only contravenes international law protecting asylum seekers, but also illustrates the impact of China on human rights standards in Asia's sub-regions from South to South East to Central Asia.

A number of incidents in Khotan in 2012 suggested that the government's push to network the southern Uyghur cities into the Chinese heartland still had teething problems. The centrally directed 2010 Xinjiang Work Forum intensified development of the transportation infrastructure, while encouraging external investment and Han migration into southern oases such as Khotan and Kashgar. Many Uyghurs consider the southern part of the region to be a haven against Han cultural influences and the existing Chinese presence is viewed with a high degree of suspicion. While Khotan has experienced unrest in the past, June 2012 alone witnessed a police raid on a religious school, house-to-house searches in the Gujanbagh district of the city, the posting of discriminatory regulations on Islamic dress and an alleged hijacking for which the purported offenders received death or life sentences in December 2012.

The Chinese government places tight constraints on freedom of religion, especially among Uyghurs. In recent years, restrictions on Uyghurs' adherence to the Islamic faith have been codified into Chinese law. Repression of Uyghur religious practice was particularly acute during Ramadan in 2012 (from July 19 to August 18).

The Financial Times reported the establishment of "security and stability work plans" across the region during the holy month. As part of the measures, government officials were posted to mosques to monitor if government employees, teachers and students were attending prayers. AFP detailed the implementation of restrictions at the local level citing examples from Kashgar Prefecture and Onsu County. AFP added that the regional government website was encouraging people to bring gifts of food to officials during the month of fasting.

World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilshat Raxit stated searches for 'illegal' religious publications (referring to any non-state produced material) were underway in Aksu and government officials had ordered Uyghur restaurants to remain open during daylight hours for Ramadan. A further indication that Chinese government officials were not willing to tolerate any kind of dissent during Ramadan was apparent in the August sentencing of 20 Uyghurs on alleged charges of terrorism and separatism. It was therefore not a surprise that when the U.S. State Department released its 2011 Religious Freedom Report on July 30, 2012 repression of Muslim Uyghurs in China was deemed "severe."

Reports of cyber attacks on Uyghur activists in exile gave rise to concerns that China was upping efforts to disrupt documentation of Uyghur human rights conditions that contradict the official narrative. In June, security researchers at Kaspersky Lab announced a Mac-based Trojan targeting Uyghur Diaspora organizations and originating in China, which attempted to collect information about Uyghur activities conducted overseas. Chinese cyber espionage focused on human rights groups outside of China is well documented. Tibetan activists have frequently been targets of Chinese malware and a May 2012 U.S. Department of Defense report described Chinese cyber espionage as one of "the world's most active and persistent."

As a response to Chinese government control of information about Uyghurs in Mandarin, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) published two reports in Chinese in 2012. In July, on the third anniversary of the Urumchi unrest, UHRP released Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices From The 2009 Unrest In Urumchi, and in December, UHRP published Living on the Margins: The Chinese State's Demolition of Uyghur Communities, which details the destruction of Uyghur neighborhoods in Kashgar and throughout the region. At least for now, the best hope for change in the Uyghur human rights landscape is to continue to document abuses for a Chinese, as well as an English, readership.