In the run up to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s meeting just held in Beijing (see the Monitor, January 9), a Kyrgyz court in Bishkek passed sentences on a group of Uighur exiles charged as “international terrorists.” Otabek Akhadov, 22, an ethnic Uighur resident of Uzbekistan, was sentenced to death. An Uighur from Turkey and two Uighur fugitives from China living in Kyrgyzstan were sentenced to twenty-five, seventeen and sixteen years in prison, respectively. Kyrgyzstan has the death penalty on the books, but observes a moratorium on it.
Those sentenced are described as supporters of the East Turkestan Liberation Organization, one of several groups militating for the creation of an Uighur state in China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (East Turkestan), the autonomy of which is purely nominal.
The defendants were found guilty in two high-profile assassination cases. In March 2000 they gunned down the businessman Nigmat Bazakov, head of the Uighur diaspora’s cultural society in Bishkek, apparently for refusing to support the militant group’s activities. The defense described the case as a financial dispute. That same year, the group ambushed in downtown Bishkek a delegation of Chinese officials–including ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang–killing one and wounding another. The group was also found guilty of having kidnapped for ransom a Chinese businessman in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz authorities uncovered the group and its arsenal of weapons in June 2000, and put the militants on trial in August 2001.
The sentencing was clearly timed to win Beijing’s approval for Kyrgyzstan at the SCO’s foreign affairs ministers’ meeting. The Chinese minister, Tang Jiaxuan, declared in wrapping up the meeting that participants had agreed on the imperative to “strike hard at all terrorists.” The choice of words, significantly, duplicates the codename of China’s “Strike Hard” campaign against Uighur militants and the Uighur identity as such. Tang and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, took the position that Russian actions in Chechnya and Chinese actions in Xinjiang-Uighuria are facets of a common struggle against “Islamic fundamentalism and separatism.”
An Uighur diaspora group, the East Turkestan National Revolutionary Front, based in Kazakhstan since the 1950s, is barely tolerated there under strict surveillance. The group’s leader, Yusupbek Mukhlisi, functions as a clearing house of information on Xinjiang-Uighuria. During the Beijing meeting of the SCO, Mukhlisi appealed in vain to the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as Muslim and Turkic countries, to break their silence about Chinese suppression of the Uighur identity.
In the post-September 11 atmosphere, the Chinese authorities have stepped up police measures in Xinjiang-Uighuria, executing at least seven militants and arresting hundreds on terrorism-related charges. Beijing tends to misrepresent this basically nationalist movement as an Islamic fundamentalist one. According to Erkin Alptekin, a Germany-based Uighur diaspora leader, son of the late leader of the 1944-49 East Turkestan Republic, indiscriminate repression might end up creating “a new generation of extremists” in Xinjiang-Uighuria. A handful of Uighurs are reported to have been found among foreign pro-Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan (Interfax, January 2; AP, January 3; AFP, January 5; Kazakh Channel 31 Television (Almaty), January 7; BBC, January 8).
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