Just hours before her death sentence and execution, Rebiya Kadeer found herself shackled inside Liudaowan Prison in China's far-western Xinjiang region. If only to calm her nerves, she assured herself that her death was for her fellow Uighurs, a Muslim minority in the world’s most populous country.
When asked for her last wish, Kadeer requested to see her children. It was denied. Her time was up. Then she was off to court to hear the verdict of her trial, on allegations that she stole state secrets. After almost six years in prison, Kadeer was released in March 2005, just a few months ahead of President Bush’s visit to China. Diplomatic pressure apparently helped persuade China to commute her death sentence.
In many ways, Kadeer's personal woes mirror the troubles confronting the 10 million Uyghurs, whom one activist called "the other Tibetans you never heard of". As China’s once in every decade leadership transition starts, Kadeer is calling on the country’s presumptive leader Xi Jinping to carry out political and economic reforms in the oil and mineral-rich Xinjiang region.
“One oppressed nation’s history and fate can be changed by one thousand or even just one freedom fighter’s voice,” Kadeer told Al Jazeera. “If I’m chosen to be that voice, I should keep going with my fight."
The Uighurs have long alleged discrimination in China because of their culture, language and Muslim religion.
China’s leaders, however, dispute Kadeer’s claims, viewing them as a threat to national sovereignty.
Ma Yuanchun, spokesman for the Chinese consulate in New York, called Kadeer “a separatist out to split Xinjiang from China”. Xinjiang constitutes one-sixth of China's land area.
Kadeer says reforms are critical to the survival of the Uighurs as an ethnic group. In a seperate statement, she said Uighurs and China "could have a fair and common future" if their cultural and religious rights as respected.
But experts believe issues surrounding minorities in China will continue to be sidelined by other problems such as corruption, labour unrest and geopolitical disputes with neighboring Asian countries.
When Kadeer talks about the plight of the Uighurs, it is also personal. Two of her children are in jail, locked up by the Chinese government following Kadeer’s election as president of the World Uyghur Congress in 2006. Kadeer said her sons are being punished for her activism.
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Like any mother fretting about her children, Kadeer mused about her son Alim being single and unable find “a beautiful bride” while in prison. Meanwhile her other son Ablikim was arrested on the day his child was born.
“I hope that one day Ablikim will be able to hold his son, my grandson, in his own hands,” Kadeer said. “I pray for them day and night. My family has sacrificed a lot but they are supportive of my fight...”
Ethnic tensions in Xinjiang have sometimes escalated into bloody confrontations like the July 2009 riots in the regional capital Urumqi that left hundreds dead.
In another incident in December 2011, seven Uighurs were killed in the province of Khotan. They were accused of being “violent terrorists” on their way to “jihad training” in Kashmir. But the US-based Radio Free Asia said the group, which included women and children, was only trying to escape China so they could freely practice their religion.
Kudret Emin, a Uighur college student living in exile in the US, told Al Jazeera that his people are too afraid to talk about politics and voice their complaints to Chinese officials for fear of being sent to jail. He says his family are some of the only Uighurs who managed to leave China in recent years.
Link to Islam
In all these episodes of violence, the Uighurs' affiliation to Islam has become an excuse for blame, said Henryk Szadziewski of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. Since 9/11, the situation has worsened, he said.
“Islam has undergone a tough time in its image across the globe,” Szadziewski said. “So yes, there is an image problem.”
Dru Gladney, a Uyghur scholar from Pomona College in California, said what worries China is that the Uyghurs' brand of Islam is “being tied into politics”. In the 1930s and ‘40s there were two attempts to establish an East Turkestan Republic with a Uighur majority in Kashgar Province.
Notwithstanding those strong sentiments, Gladney said that the Uyghurs “tend not to be resistant” to authorities. But he also pointed out that Uighurs are “very frustrated” because “they feel disadvantaged” in their native land.
Until now, the legitimacy of the Uighurs’ claim of Xinjiang remains a contentious issue. Bovingdon Gardner, a Central Asia expert at Indiana University said, “there is no clear international historical answer to the question”. But, he said, that also applies to China’s own claim to the area.
"I don’t think that they [Uyghurs] will have a decisive impact on American foreign policy towards China"
- Howard French, Columbia University
“There isn’t any universal agreement on what constitutes sovereign claim of a territory,” Gardner said. “There’s no lever with which to sort of pry apart the claims of China and Uyghurs in that case.”
Pointing to the victory of communist revolutionary Mao Zedong in 1949, Gladney added that “history is always written by the conquerors”.
Despite continued lobbying by the 1,000 or so Uyghur exiles in the US, members of the minority say the White House has not made significant efforts to address the issue. While then-US President George Bush met Kadeer twice, no actual foreign policy change toward China was implemented.
Neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have met Kadeer.
“I don’t think that they [Uighurs] will have a decisive impact on American foreign policy towards China,” said Howard French, a China expert at Columbia Journalism School. Realpolitik dictates foreign policy priorities, and human rights are not on top of that list, he said.
With volatile issues at stake from North Korea and Iran to Syria, where the US needs China’s cooperation, many observers suggest America would be reluctant to alienate China.
“It’s clear that China has successfully pressured the United States” noted Gladney, pointing to China’s enormous financial leverage.
But that does not mean China should ignore the grumblings of the Uighurs, French said. “If this was a human being and we are talking about medical terms, we would say that it is a chronic condition,” he said. “It’s not going away.”
An enduring fight
On the same day she sat for an interview, Kadeer led more than a hundred people to protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington DC calling on China to stop the “human rights abuses” in Xinjiang and to release “political prisoners”.
Aside from the issue of autonomy, Kadeer also sought attention to Uighur asylum-seekers, who are oftentimes deported to China, where they sometimes face imprisonment. Earlier this year, for instance, two Uyghur refugees who fled to Cambodia were deported to China and later sentenced to life in prison. Another was meted 17 years, according to the state news agency, Xinhua.
Recently, Kadeer also called on China to respect the Uighurs right to observe Ramadan and the Eid celebrations, which have been banned. She also helped expose the harvesting of live organs in Chinese prisons, a controversial practice that was recently discussed before the US Congress.
“I have to save my people because they are still living in a prison,” Kadeer said. “As others have fought for my own freedom, I should also fight for other people who don’t have freedom.”
But whether or not China’s leaders, who are gathered in Beijing for the 18th National Congress, are finally listening to Kadeer’s muted cry, remains a mystery.