Many in the West will have known little about the Uighur people until the riots that erupted in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi last year were widely reported. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region borders Russia, Pakistan and Afghanistan among others. Although ethnically diverse, it is predominantly Muslim, and many inhabitants identify themselves as Uighurs. The region has been annexed to China on and off for the last three centuries and was named Xinjiang (‘new frontier’) in the nineteenth century. From 1944 it enjoyed a brief spell of independence during the Communist–Nationalist civil war, when it became the republic of East Turkestan, but this collapsed five years later and its leadership fled abroad.
The Chinese are keen to exploit the region’s petroleum and gas reserves, minerals and fertile agriculture and have resettled many Han Chinese there. Ethnic tensions have escalated in recent years. Worryingly, the Chinese authorities often deal with this by linking expressions of public discontent to terrorism or separatism, despite there being no evidence to substantiate their claims.
One of the victims of this repression is award-winning Uighur writer Nurmuhemmet Yasin, who continues to languish in prison for his allegorical short story Wild Pigeon (Yawa Kepter).
The story was first published in the bi-monthly Uighur-language Kashgar Literature Journal in November 2004. It was then widely circulated and recommended for a literary award. At this point it attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities, who deemed it critical of the government. Yasin was arrested in Kashgar on 29 November 2004. The authorities confiscated his personal computer containing an estimated 1,600 poems, commentaries, stories, and an unfinished novel. He was denied a lawyer and was tried behind closed doors. In February 2005 he was sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘inciting separatism’. The journal’s editor, Korash Huseyin, was tried at the same time for publishing Wild Pigeon and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Yasin’s fictional story is about a wild pigeon, the son of a pigeon king, who eats a poisoned strawberry rather than submitting to the will of humans who have trapped and caged him. In one passage, the wild pigeon talks about freedom of the soul:
‘Soul? What’s a soul, grandfather?’ a young pigeon sitting beside me asks. I am stunned that he doesn’t know this word, doesn’t know what a soul is. What are these pigeons teaching their children? To live without a soul, without understanding what a soul is, is pointless. Do they not see this? To have a soul, to have freedom – these things cannot be bought or given as gifts; they are not to be had just through praying, either.
Freedom of the soul, I feel, was crucial for these pitiful pigeons. Without it, life is meaningless, and yet they seem never even to have heard of the word.
In his early thirties, Yasin is already a prolific and well-respected writer. He has published many highly acclaimed literary works and prose poems, including three poetry collections: First Love, Crying from the Heart, and Come on Children. Some of his work has been selected for inclusion in Uighur-language middle-school literature textbooks.
His is not the only silenced voice in the region. Following the murder of at least two (some human rights groups put the figure higher) Uighur migrant workers in a toy factory in southern China, Uighur protesters took to the streets on 5 July 2009. These demonstrations led to clashes which were violently suppressed by the authorities and in their wake an estimated 1,500 people have been detained.
These include Hailaite Niyazi, a freelance journalist and former editor of the website Uighur Online (www.uighurbiz.net), who was arrested in October last year and on 23 July 2010 was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, reportedly for leaking state secrets. PEN believes that his detention is the result of interviews critical of the government that he gave to the foreign media following the July 2009 unrest. The prosecution reportedly used as evidence essays written by Niyazi highlighting mounting ethnic tension in the region prior to the riots, and interviews he gave to the Hong Kong media after the violence.
Three other Uighur webmasters were also given lengthy sentences in late July 2010 for material they published following the unrest. They are Dilsha Perhat, webmaster and owner of Diyarim; Nureli, webmaster of Salkin; and Nijat Azat, webmaster of Shabnam. The men were reportedly sentenced in closed trials to five, three and ten years respectively for ‘endangering national security’, and their websites have since been blocked. They will appeal their sentences.
Yasin, however, has exhausted his appeals and remains in prison in Xinjiang. He has been denied all visitors since his arrest six years ago.
Readers might like to send appeals protesting that Nurmuhemmet Yasin is detained in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory; and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Yasin and all those detained in violation of their right to free expression in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Liu Xiaoming
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
49 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: +44 (0)20 7636 2981
Wild Pigeon can be read in English translation on the website of Radio Free Asia’s Uighur Service (www.rfa.org). PEN is currently highlighting Yasin’s case by arranging for Wild Pigeon to be translated into fifty different languages. For further information visit www.englishpen.org/writersinprison