Chinese government sentences famous Uyghur scholar to life in prison, foundation says

BEIJING (AP) — A prominent Uighur scholar who specialized in the study of her people’s folklore and traditions has been sentenced to life in prison, according to a U.S.-based foundation that studies human rights cases in China.

Rahile Dawut was convicted of endangering state security in a secret trial in December 2018, the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation said in a statement on Thursday. Dawut appealed, but her conviction was upheld, the foundation said.

“The sentencing of Professor Rahile Dawut to life in prison is a cruel tragedy, a great loss for the Uyghur people and for all who value academic freedom,” John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, said in a statement.

Dawut was a professor at Xinjiang University and the founder of the school’s Ethnic Minority Folklore Research Center. She disappeared in late 2017 as part of a brutal government crackdown on the Uyghurs, a Turkic, predominantly Muslim ethnic group native to China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.

Their exact status was unknown for years as Chinese authorities did not disclose their whereabouts or the nature of the charges against them. That changed this month when the Dui Hua Foundation saw a Chinese government document showing that Dawut was sentenced to life in prison.

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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a regular news conference on Friday that she had “no information” on Dawut’s case, but added that China would “handle cases in accordance with the law.”

Dawut was internationally known for her work researching sacred Islamic sites and Uyghur cultural practices in Xinjiang and throughout Central Asia, authoring numerous articles and books and lecturing as a visiting scholar abroad, including at Cambridge and the University of Pennsylvania.

She is one of over 400 prominent academics, writers, artists and performers detained in Xinjiang, advocacy groups say. Critics say the government has targeted intellectuals in an attempt to dilute or even erase Uyghur culture, language and identity.

“Most prominent Uyghur intellectuals have been arrested. They were indiscriminate,” said Joshua Freeman, an Academia Sinica researcher who formerly worked as a translator for Dawut. “I don’t think anything about her work got her into trouble. I think what got her into trouble was that she was born Uyghur.”

The news of her life sentence shocked Freeman and other Uyghur studies academics, as Dawut did not participate in anti-Chinese government activities. Dawut was a member of the Chinese Communist Party and received scholarships and awards from the Chinese Ministry of Culture before her arrest.

Dawut’s daughter, Akeda Pulati, said she was stunned by the news and called on Chinese authorities to release her mother.

“I know that the Chinese government tortures and persecutes the Uyghurs. But I did not expect that they would be so cruel and give my innocent mother a life sentence,” Pulati said. “Their cruelty is beyond my imagination.”

Pulati called Dawut “the hardest working person I have ever met” and said she has been inspired by her mother’s commitment to her career since she was a child.

“She is a very simple person – all she wants in her life is to enjoy her work and career and do something good for society and the people around her,” Pulati said.

Mukaddas Mijit, a Brussels-based Uighur ethnomusicologist, said Dawut was an important advisor to her and many other scholars early in their careers. Dawut was a crucial bridge between global scholarship and Uyghur culture, Mijit said, mentoring a generation of prominent Uyghur scholars around the world.

“She was a guardian of Uyghur identity, and that is something the Chinese government is looking for,” Mijit said. “They want to wipe everything out and they want the Uighurs to forget how beautiful and colorful their culture was.”

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