Xinjiang Attack Disputed; Uyghur Scholar Charged

Xinhua yesterday reported that a “premeditated and carefully planned” violent terrorist attack [Chinese] in Shache County, western Xinijang had killed dozens of civilians and destroyed over 30 police vehicles early on Monday morning. Security forces in turn shot dead dozens of the armed assailants “in accordance with the law.” Xinhua’s report came more than a day after unverified rumors of an attack and subsequent crackdown were being deleted from social media, and was accompanied by a government propaganda directive forbidding independent coverage. In the Wall Street Journal, Josh Chin reports that an overseas advocacy group is disputing the state media account of Monday’s violence:

The Uyghur American Association, an exile group, disputed that characterization in a statement Wednesday. Citing unidentified local people, it said more than 20 Uighurs were killed and more than 70 were arrested following protests Monday over heavy-handed police treatment during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“That state media could label the killing of dozens of people as in line with the law reflects the poor regard the state has for its own laws and judicial process,” the association’s president, Alim Seytoff, said in the statement.

The association said several Uighurs had fled to Elixhu from a nearby township earlier this month following protests over the alleged police killing of a Uighur family, and it called for an investigation into Monday’s deaths.

Reached by phone Wednesday, police in Elixhu and Yarkand declined to comment on the association’s statement or offer further information about the clash. Internet access has been cut off in Yarkand since late Monday, a police officer reached in Elixhu earlier told The Wall Street Journal. [Source]

TIME reports that Radio Free Asia’s account also clashes with Xinhua’s, and points to the difficulty of gathering facts about an area as sensitive as Xinjiang:

The dueling narratives point to the challenge of figuring out what, exactly, is happening in China’s vast and restless northwest. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where the incident took place, is contested space. It is both claimed as the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, and also as Chinese territory. In recent years, the area has seethed with unrest attributed, depending on whom you ask, to Islamic terrorism, separatism or heavy-handed repression by the state. For years now, a small minority has fought against the government, usually by targeting symbols of state power, including police stations and transport hubs.

[…After numerous recent attacks throughout China blamed by the government on Uyghur extremists,] Beijing has […] doubled down on already aggressive security measures and their campaign of forced cultural integration. Across the region, town squares are now patrolled by armed security personnel in riot gear, and villages are sealed off by police checkpoints. Ethnic Uighurs are stopped and searched. Meanwhile, the government has stepped up limits on religious practice by, for instance, putting age restrictions on mosque visits and banning students and government workers from fasting during Ramadan.

In the context of this division and distrust, it makes sense that there are competing claims. The trouble is, China prevents outsiders from gathering information on their own. The foreign press corps is, by virtue of China’s rules, based far from Xinjiang, primarily in the Han-majority cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Travel to Xinjiang, while not officially forbidden, is effectively restricted. When I visited Urumqi and Hotan in late May, security personnel harassed my Chinese colleague, questioned me, followed our movements and stopped us from traveling to the city of Kashgar. [Source]

More on competing narratives about Xinjiang and the difficulty of covering the region from Andrew Jacobs at the New York Times:

The recent escalation in violence is often subject to different narratives. The government describes the violence as terrorism, often blaming religious fundamentalists seeking independence for the region, while exile groups and human rights advocates attribute many of the deaths to excessive force they say is used to crush peaceful protests.

Government restrictions make independent reporting in the region difficult, and Uighurs who share details of such incidents with foreign news media can face severe punishment. [….] [Source]

Amid conflicting reports on violence in far western Xinjiang, The Guardian reports that jailed Uyghur scholar and activist Ilham Tohti has been formally charged with separatism. The prominent economist was detained from his Beijing home and accused of separatism in January, and formally arrested in February.

China has indicted the outspoken Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on charges of separatism, prosecutors have announced.

Tohti, who has been detained since January, was not informed of the latest move directly, according to his lawyer, who accused authorities of”shocking” handling of the case and ignoring Tohti’s rights to a defence.

[…] Prosecutors in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, where Tohti is held, announced his indictment in a statement posted online. Once charged, conviction is all but certain, particularly in such a high-profile case. Separatism charges in theory carry the death penalty, though they usually result in imprisonment.

Tohti’s daughter Jewher Ilham, who is studying in the US, said: “I am angry about this, they have not followed the legal path. My father was only trying to foster a dialogue. What they have charged him with is untrue.” [Source]

In a background report on Ilham Tohti’s detention and separatism charges, Human Rights Watch has condemned the charge as “baseless”:

The decision to indict on such a serious charge a man like Ilham Tohti, who is known for trying to bridge divides, shows how far China’s human rights have deteriorated in the past months,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “It sends precisely the wrong signal to Uighurs when tensions are at an all-time high.”

Tohti’s lawyers said the charge is based on articles published on Uighur Online, a website Tohti founded that focused on Uighur issues. The authorities alleged that the articles, some of which Tohti wrote and some of which were posted by his students and volunteers, have “subversive intent.” The charge is also based on Tohti’s interviews with foreign media. None of these articles or interviews incited violence or terrorism, according to his lawyers. The authorities have also cited as evidence Tohti’s lectures at Beijing Minzu University of China, where he taught. The authorities have refused to hand over videotape copies of the lectures to his lawyers, nor have the lawyers received a copy of the indictment.

There is no publicly available evidence that Tohti engaged in any form of speech or behavior that could be construed by any objective standard as inciting violence or unlawful action. […] [Source]

The jailed Uyghur scholar’s first name has joined many keywords related to the violence and communications crackdown in Shache on the list of currently forbidden Weibo search terms (h/t @Edourdoo).