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China jails top Uyghur scholar for life after secret trial

Rahile Dawut, who was arrested in 2017, has been a visiting scholar at some of the world’s most prestigious universities

By George Styllis

23 September 2023

Rahile Dawut, a world-renowned scholar of Uyghur studies, has been sentenced to life in prison in China

A prominent Uyghur academic who was a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge has been sentenced to life in prison amid China’s crackdown on the ethnic muslim minority.

Rahile Dawut is a world-renowned scholar of Uyghur studies, having appeared at some of the world’s most prestigious universities to discuss Uyghur folklore and cultural traditions.

She was arrested in 2017 and tried in secret a year later, when she was given a life sentence for endangering state security. She appealed the conviction, but it was recently upheld, according to a US rights group.

“The sentencing of Professor Rahile Dawut to life in prison is a cruel tragedy, a great loss for the Uyghur people, and for all who treasure academic freedom,” said John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation.

Ms Dawut was teaching at Xinjiang University when she was arrested in December 2017.

She had founded the university’s Ethnic Minorities Research Center a decade earlier and had researched ethnography throughout Xinjiang.

Brutal crackdown

Her disappearance coincided with a brutal government crackdown aimed at the Uyghurs, a Turkic, predominantly Muslim, ethnicity native to China’s northwest Xinjiang region.

Beijing has reportedly arbitrarily detained more than a million Muslims in reeducation camps since 2017, and subjected the population to intense surveillance, forced labour and involuntary sterilisations.

It views Uyghurs as holding extremist and separatist ideas, and repressing the group is seen as a way of eliminating threats to China’s territorial and political integrity.

Ms Dawut is one of over 400 prominent academics, writers, performers and artists detained in Xinjiang, advocacy groups say. Among them are Halmurat Ghopur, the former president of Xinjiang Medical University, and professor Erkin Abdurehim of Kashgar University.

Critics say the government has targeted intellectuals as a way to dilute, or even erase, Uyghur culture, language and identity.

“Most prominent Uyghur intellectuals have been arrested. They’ve been indiscriminate,” said Joshua Freeman, an Academia Sinica researcher who used to work as a translator for Dawut.

“I don’t think it is anything about her work that got her in trouble. I think what got her in trouble was that she was born a Uyghur.”

Ms Dawut’s daughter, Akeda Pulati, said she was stunned by the news and called on the Chinese authorities to release her mother.

“I know the Chinese government is torturing and persecuting the Uyghurs. But I didn’t expect them to be that cruel, to give my innocent mother a life sentence,” Ms Pulati said. “Their cruelty is beyond my imagination.”

Ms Dawut’s work has been published by the Cambridge and Harvard presses. In 2017, Cambridge was rebuked by fellow academics for complying with a request from Chinese authorities to block local readers from accessing hundreds of academic journals online.


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