Portrait Rebiya Kadir

Fighting for the Uighurs' Rights

The global war against terrorism provides China with a pretext to persecute its own Muslim population. Human rights activist Rebiya Kadir speaks out about the situation of roughly eight million Uighurs in China. Tobias Grote-Beverborg reports

The global war against terrorism provides China with a pretext to persecute its own Muslim population. Human rights activist Rebiya Kadir speaks out about the situation of roughly eight million Uighurs in northwestern China. Tobias Grote-Beverborg reports

photo: DW
Touring Europe for the rights of her people: Rebiya Kadir

​​The petite human rights activist, her black and white dress and pinned-up hair giving her an almost austere appearance, beamed as she was presented with an umbrella and other presents for her welcome in the studios of Deutsche Welle.

These presents corresponded to the words she once used to describe her task. She wanted to be the mother of the Uighur people, the medicine for their suffering, the paper tissue for their tears, and the umbrella to protect them from the rain.

Rebiya Kadir is still working to achieve this task, even though the mother of eleven children had to give up her successful life as a wealthy entrepreneur to do so. The suffering of her own people, who have been denied the most fundamental human rights, moves her too deeply to be able to watch without lifting a finger.

"My people want free education in their own language, and they want the Chinese government to accept Uighur culture and traditions and to help preserve them," explained Rebiya Kadir. "In addition, my people want to participate in economic life and to know that their religious freedom is protected."

From seamstress to millionaire

The Uighurs are an autonomous, Turkish-speaking ethnic group, whose homeland enjoyed a brief period of independence as East Turkestan at the end of the 1940s. Since 1949 it has belonged to the People’s Republic of China.

For her courageous efforts Rebiya Kadir spent five years in prison under the harshest conditions – two years in isolation and darkness. Only international pressure, especially from the United States, resulted in her release this March.

Yet Rebiya Kadir was once a model citizen highly praised by the Chinese authorities. She rose from simple seamstress to a multimillionaire with business connections all over Central Asia.

In 1995 she attended the UN Women's Conference in Peking as a delegate and was even appointed as a deputy to the highest advisory body for the Chinese People's Congress – the "Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference" (CPPCC). But, she says, nobody wanted to know anything about the fate of the Uighurs:

"While I rose higher and higher politically, I learned more about the human rights violations in my region. I could no longer lie to my people or to the international community about the true situation in my homeland. Therefore I decided to become a human rights activist."

"I had to sacrifice my business because it was destroyed by the Chinese. But I had decided I would rather be a political activist who draws attention to human rights violations in China, particularly in my own country, than a successful business woman."

A European tour to draw attention

The international community knows little about the suffering of the predominantly Muslim Uighurs. According to amnesty international, Peking has imprisoned three thousand Uighurs alone in the first half of this year on the suspicion that they are separatists or terrorists. Rebiya Kadir talks about a persecution campaign pursued by the Chinese government under the guise of the international fight against terrorism.

"Of course there is resistance against Chinese foreign rule in my country. But it is a peaceful resistance – without violence. No terrorist methods are used. The resistance is absolutely peaceful, but the Chinese government wants the world to think that the political movement among the Uighurs is violent. But it is simply not true!"

To draw the world's attention to the fate of the Uighurs, Kadir sought support at the beginning of the year 2000 from a group of visiting U.S. Congress members. When she tried to hand over material about the afflictions of the Uighurs, she was arrested and sentenced to eight years of prison for allegedly disseminating state secrets.

The fact that five of her children and her husband live in the United States certainly helped her obtain an early release from prison.

Rebiya Kadir is currently traveling through Europe in another effort to inform the world about the situation of her compatriots. In Germany she will protest to the authorities about the imminent deportation of Uighur asylum seekers and open a Uighur liaison office.

Tobias Grote-Beverborg


Translation from German: Nancy Joyce


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More about the religious repression of Uighur Muslims on Human Rights Watch

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