In November 2009, Dui Hua compiled a list of 22 Uyghurs imprisoned or detained on political charges in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). A request for information about each prisoner was submitted to a Chinese intermediary organization with channels to the prison authorities in Xinjiang. This was the first time Dui Hua had ever submitted a request for prisoner information focused solely on Xinjiang.
Dui Hua has long recognized that obtaining information about Uyghur prisoners is difficult because of the sensitive nature of ethnic relations in the region. Getting a response would be especially difficult in light of the demonstrations and violent rioting that broke out in Urumqi in July 2009. To facilitate the process, Dui Hua focused mainly on individuals charged with crimes unrelated to the events of last summer. Detailed background information was included for each case, and names were provided in both Chinese characters and Uyghur script. Information about some of the cases had been previously provided by the Chinese government in its human rights dialogues, whereas other cases were more obscure.
Over a three-month period ending in early July, Dui Hua had received information about 18 of the 22 names on its November list. Of those 18, Dui Hua was informed that records for four could not be found, which could mean that there were errors in the names provided or that those individuals had not yet entered the prison system—perhaps because their cases were still being investigated or tried. (Three of these responses were reported in Dialogue 39.)
A particularly notable response concerned Mehbube Abrak, a 30-year-old Uyghur woman reported to be serving a three-year sentence for “splittism” in the XUAR Women’s Prison, which would make her the only female Uyghur political prisoner that the Chinese government has confirmed to be currently imprisoned. According to a 2008 report by Radio Free Asia, Abrak (referenced to in the report as “Mehbube Ablesh”) was fired from her position in the advertising department at Xinjiang People’s Radio in July or August of that year and detained on suspicion of criticizing government policies requiring the use of Chinese language in classroom instruction. Because she is rumored to have posted her criticisms on overseas websites and due to the relatively short length of the sentence, it is possible that Abrak was convicted of “inciting splittism,” rather than “splittism,” a more serious crime.
It was also confirmed that Gheyret Niyaz, a 51-year-old former journalist and AIDS activist from Urumqi, had been formally arrested in November 2009. The response did not specify the charges against Niyaz, saying only that he had “fabricated rumors and inflamed ethnic antagonism,” suggesting a possible charge of “inciting splittism.” Niyaz, a former senior reporter for the Xinjiang Economic News, gave several interviews after the July 5 riots in Urumqi, including one in the Hong Kong news magazine Yazhou Zhoukan in which he claimed to have alerted local officials to signs of trouble and suggested that the riots appeared to have been a pre-meditated incident coordinated by members of the “Islamic Liberation Party.” (At the time of writing, it was reported unofficially that Niyaz’s case had gone to trial and that, on July 23, he had been convicted of state security charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison.)
The responses to Dui Hua’s prisoner list included no reports of clemency, indicating that there had been “no change to the original sentence” for political prisoners, further evidence that prison authorities in the XUAR have adopted a tough line with respect to granting sentence reductions, parole, or medical parole to Uyghurs imprisoned for state security crimes. Dui Hua is not aware of a single act of clemency toward a Uyghur political prisoner since the medical parole of Rebiya Kadeer in 2005.
In fact, the one change reported to a prisoner’s sentence involves a serious sentence extension given to a Uyghur man who has already spent many years in prison. Omer Akchi, 39, was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for counterrevolution in 1997, just before the crime was eliminated from China’s Criminal Law. In December of 2006, Akchi was sentenced to life imprisonment for splittism, presumably for acts committed during his imprisonment.