Academic Freedom Watchdog Demands China Unconditionally Release Prominent Uyghur Scholar

Authorities in China should immediately and unconditionally release a prominent scholar of Uyghur culture who disappeared from the country’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in December and is believed held in a political “re-education camp,” according to a watchdog for academic freedom.

Rahile Dawut, a professor of Uyghur studies at Xinjiang University in the XUAR capital Urumqi, went missing in December 2017 after informing her family that she planned to travel to Beijing.

Family members announced her disappearance in August, and suspect she is among a growing number of Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas who since April 2017 have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.

In a statement on Wednesday, New York-based Scholars at Risk (SAR)—an international network of institutions and individuals promoting academic freedom—said it is “gravely concerned” for Dawut, noting that authorities have not publicly disclosed her whereabouts or details of her well-being, access to legal counsel, or any charges against her.

“SAR calls for letters, emails, and faxes respectfully urging authorities to secure Professor Dawut’s immediate and unconditional release and pending this, to publicly disclose the circumstances of Professor Dawut’s detention,” the group said.

SAR also called on authorities to “ensure her access to family and legal counsel, and ensure and that her case is addressed in a manner consistent with internationally recognized standards of due process, fair trial, and detention, in accordance with China’s obligations under international law.”

While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the Uyghur chairman of Xinjiang’s provincial government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency last month that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.

According to Zakir, Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims in the region are taught Mandarin at the camps, as well as important vocational skills and lessons on Chinese law, all while being provided with free meals in comfortable living conditions, and that they are free to come and go as they like.

Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.

The call for Dawut’s release comes as the official Global Times reported Friday that director of the XUAR Economic and Information Commission Weli Barat, a former president of Xinjiang University, was placed “under investigation by the XUAR Discipline Commission for serious violations” of the law.

Barat was appointed president of Xinjiang University in March last year, after his predecessor, Tashpolat Teyip, was sacked for being a “two-faced official”—a term applied by the government to Uyghur cadres who pay lip service to Communist Party rule, but secretly chafe against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.

Prior to serving as the president of Xinjiang University, Barat was the head of Xinjiang Normal University and has held several positions within the ranks of China’s ruling Communist Party.

The report provided no further details about Barat’s alleged crimes.

Intellectuals targeted

Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, told RFA that the detention of Dawut—an internationally recognized scholar who has received numerous awards from China’s Ministry of Culture—“proves the fallacy of Chinese claims that it is only offering vocational training to Uyghurs influenced by extremism” at the camps.

Isa noted that several other prominent Uyghur scholars have gone missing from the XUAR in recent months and are believed detained in re-education camps, and said the trend shows that Chinese authorities are “committing cultural genocide by attempting to eliminate the best and brightest Uyghur minds.”

China has also not explained why elderly Uyghurs would require “vocational training.”

Last month, in its annual “Free to Think” report detailing global academic freedom, SAR noted “with grave concern” efforts by Chinese authorities to detain Uyghur scholars, saying that those who question restrictions under the guise of anti-terrorism and national unity policies on Uyghur language and exercise of the Islamic faith have been targeted with imprisonment and persecution.

Among those targeted, it said, was outspoken economics professor Ilham Tohti, who in September 2014 was sentenced to a life term behind bars on charges of promoting separatism, after regularly highlighting the religious and cultural persecution of Uyghurs in the XUAR.

SAR said the detentions recall the days of China’s Cultural Revolution, when authorities arrested many of the country’s scholars, public intellectuals, and young people, and subjected them to forced labor and physical and psychological abuse.

“Revival of these tactics today could result in similar consequences: the loss of a generation of scholars and students and a shrinking of the space in which all Chinese—not only Uyghurs—enjoy their right to freedom of thought and inquiry,” the group said.

SAR called on authorities to immediately release scholars, students, and other members of the Uyghur community who have been detained for peacefully exercising their rights to academic freedom and, pending their release, to disclose the basis of their detention and their location, and uphold national and international obligations to due process and treatment of persons in custody.

The group urged Chinese authorities to refrain from further detentions, re-education efforts, and other actions that restrict academic freedom, and called on states and higher education authorities outside of China to press Beijing to do so.

Reported by Sada and Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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