The United States has condemned China’s reported sentencing of prominent Uyghur academic Rahile Dawut to life in prison, calling for the immediate release of the scholar known for documenting folklore and traditions of the Muslim minority in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.
The statement, released by the US State Department Friday, follows a report from non-profit human rights group Dui Hua Foundation on September 21, which said Rahile Dawut was serving a life sentence for endangering state security, citing a source in the Chinese government.
Rahile Dawut, who is widely believed by academics and rights groups to have been taken into official custody in 2017, is among what the non-profit Uyghur Human Rights Project in 2021 estimated to be more than 300 Uyghur and other Muslim intellectuals detained by the Chinese government amid a broader crackdown.
The Chinese government has been accused of detaining more than a million Uyghur and other predominately Muslim individuals in internment camps in Xinjiang and conducting forceful assimilation to suppress their cultural and religious identity.
A report from the United Nations’ highest human rights office last year found China had committed “serious human rights violations,” which may amount to “crimes against humanity” in the region.
The report documented what it described as arbitrary and discriminatory detention within the context of the government’s “application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies.” It also cited “numerous reporting and data” on the arrest and imprisonment of “prominent scholars, artists and intellectuals from the Uyghur community.”
Academics and advocates say the oppression goes on, though it is being absorbed into the prison system and transformed into a forced labor apparatus and a culture of fear and surveillance.
China has fiercely denied committing rights violations and, after initially denying the camps existed, then said the facilities were “vocational education and training centers.” Last year, China told a visiting UN team the facilities had closed – a claim the UN office said it could not verify.
When asked about Rahile Dawut at a press briefing last month, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said she wasn’t aware of the situation, adding that “China is a country of rule of law.”
US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in the statement Friday that Rahile Dawut and other Uyghur intellectuals “have been unjustly imprisoned for their work to protect and preserve Uyghur culture and traditions.”
“Professor Dawut’s life sentence is part of an apparent broader effort by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) to eradicate Uyghur identity and culture and undermine academic freedom, including through the use of detentions and disappearances,” he said.
The State Department in 2021 said China had committed genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
A renowned scholar
Rahile Dawut is known as a foremost scholar of Uyghur culture, who focused her work on folklore and religious anthropology, including documenting Uyghur pilgrimage to religious shrines throughout Xinjiang.
Through her collaborations with international researchers, guest lecturing and teaching, she is credited by international academics with fostering a greater global understanding of Uyghur culture and making key contributions to preserving and documenting Uyghur heritage and architecture.
In 2007, Rahile Dawut founded a center focused on folklore at Xinjiang University, where she was a professor. She also received grants and awards from the Chinese government, according to the American Anthropological Association.
But in late 2017, she disappeared, according to academics and rights groups.
According to San Francisco-based Dui Hua, Rahile Dawut was tried in 2018 of for “splittism” or political separatism – a crime of endangering state security. She was convicted and appealed. That appeal was rejected by a Xinjiang high court, the organization said in its September 21 statement, citing the source.
In 2014, Xinjiang’s government pledged to eradicate extremism in the region amid government concerns about terrorism and separatism.
As well as detaining Uyghurs, Chinese authorities allegedly targeted Uyghur cultural and religious heritage that scholars like Rahile Dawut worked to study and preserve, according to rights groups, reports and academics.
The UN’s 2022 assessment cited reports detailing the “destruction of Islamic religious sites, such as mosques, shrines and cemeteries.” Those came alongside a larger policy in which “standard tenets of Islamic religion” were viewed as signs of extremism, and targeted by the government, it said.
The Chinese government last year said it “rightfully rejected” findings of the report, which it described in a formal response to the UN office as “based on the disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces.”
Since 2018, numerous rights groups have condemned Rahile Dawut’s alleged detention and called for her release, as well as that of other Uyghur intellectuals, including Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University, who was handed a life sentence in 2014.
Rahile Dawut “is a brilliant teacher and researcher whose work has guided a generation of young scholars worldwide in deepening our knowledge of Uyghur culture,” the Open Society University Network (OSUN), an international academic organization that had earlier named her an honorary professor, said in a statement last month.
“The court’s sentence is an assault on academic freedom, the Uyghur people, and the rule of law. OSUN calls on the Chinese government to release Professor Dawut from prison and allow her to resume her important work immediately,” it read.