Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 9 April 2021


China hands death sentences to Uyghur former officials

Two who led Xinjiang education department get suspended penalty for publishing school textbooks

Yalqun Rozi
Uyghur literary critic and writer Yalqun Rozi, seen on a visit to New York in 2014, was given a lengthy jail term. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Last modified on Fri 9 Apr 2021 10.45 BST

A Chinese court has issued a suspended death sentence to the former directors of the Xinjiang education department for charges including writing and publishing school textbooks it said were designed to “split the country”.

Sattar Sawut and his deputy, Shirzat Bawudun, were given death sentences with a two-year reprieve, while five other Uyghur men, including editors, were given lengthy jail terms, according to state media.

The date of the convictions and sentences are unknown but were revealed in a state media film released in the last week, amid a PR offensive by the Chinese government pushing back on international criticism of its abuses in the Xinjiang region.

In the Chinese judicial system, a death sentence with reprieve can be commuted to 25 years, or life in prison, pending good behaviour.

Sattar was accused of building a team and planning with his deputy to incorporate “bloody, violent, terrorist and separatist ideas” in primary and secondary school textbooks dating back 13 years, the state news agency Xinhua said.

The books in question date back as far as 2003, but in 2016 the content was deemed by Xinjiang authorities to be “separatist” in nature and inciting ethnic hatred.

The son of Yalqun Rozi, one of the editors sentenced, and who was first arrested in 2016, said the charges were “absurd”.

“These textbooks were sanctioned by the state,” Kamaltürk Yalqun told the Associated Press. “China is trying to erase history and write a new narrative.”

The court has not published its ruling or other documents, and state media did not detail what problems it saw in the texts. A People’s Daily article on Wednesday said a total of 84 texts in a 2003 and a 2009 edition in ethnic languages had been found to have influenced several named individuals to take part in the 2009 Urumqi riots, and a 2014 bombing at the Urumqi railway station.

The People’s Daily report said: “By changing and distorting history, [Sattar and his co-accused] tried to instil separatist ideas into students, increase national hatred and achieve the purpose of splitting the motherland.”

South China Morning Post cited the CGTN film to describe some sections and images in the textbook that referred to a 1940s chapter of Xinjiang history and the short-lived East Turkestan Republic government, or that depicted clashes between Uyghur fighters and Han-looking soldiers during the same period.

Yalqun told the AP the passages were about historical tales that had nothing to do with terrorism, and the prosecutions were aimed at cultural destruction and assimilation.

“Because these textbooks are rich in Uyghur culture, China targeted them,” Yalqun said. “They’re moving toward the direction of eliminating Uyghur language education and culture altogether.”

Sattar, who was also convicted of offences related to bribery allegations, was deprived of political rights for life, and had his property confiscated.

The prosecution comes amid a deepening crackdown on Uyghur and other ethnic minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region. More than 1 million people are believed to have been interned in reeducation camps, and there is evidence of authorities running enforce labour transfer programmes, as well as systemic rape and torture, forced sterilisation of women, child separation and mass surveillance and intimidation. Leading Uyghur academics and other public figures have been arrested.

The US government and some law groups have declared the actions of the Chinese government against the group to be a genocide.

As international outrage mounts and becomes increasingly coordinated in the implementation of sanctions and other measures against the perpetrators, Beijing has ratcheted up its denials of mistreatment and abuses, launching multi-platform PR campaigns ranging from choreographed press conferences in foreign countries to a domestically released musical depicting a wonderful life in Xinjiang.

Chinese diplomats have engaged in hostile communications online and with foreign counterparts, and individually targeted and smeared Uyghur women who have spoken publicly about their ordeals.

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