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Last Updated: Friday, 24 June, 2005, 21:23 GMT 22:23 UK
Fighting the cause of China's Uighurs
By Kate McGeown
BBC News

Rebiya Kadeer
Ms Kadeer is on a tour of Europe to campaign for Uighur rights
Rebiya Kadeer was once a successful businesswoman in China's Xinjiang province.

But she was imprisoned in 2000 for leaking state secrets, and since her release in March she has been concentrating on a very different goal.

"Since I came out of jail, I have never stopped fighting for the freedom of my people," she told the BBC News website.

Ms Kadeer is a Uighur - a member of an eight million-strong ethnic group which she claims suffers severe repression from the authorities in Beijing.

Now based in the US, she devotes all her time to publicising the plight of the Uighurs - and she is currently touring Europe to bring attention to their cause.

"I believe the Uighur people are the most persecuted people on the planet," Ms Kadeer said.

"In prison, I personally witnessed the torture and persecution of many Uighurs who were totally innocent of the crimes they were said to have committed."

Out of favour

Ms Kadeer herself suffered hardship during her five year imprisonment.

"I wasn't allowed to speak to other inmates, to read or to write," she said. "I wasn't even allowed to hire my own lawyer for my trial."

Once lauded by the Chinese authorities - and even appointed a seat on one of the government's highest consultative bodies - Ms Kadeer fell out of favour when her husband, former political prisoner Sidik Rouzi, fled China for the US in 1996.

Ethnically Turkic Muslims, mainly in Xinjiang
Made bid for independent state in 1940s
Sporadic violence in Xinjiang since 1991

She was detained in 1999 for endangering national security by sending newspaper clippings to her husband on the treatment of the Uighur community.

She said that even when she was released from jail, she did not feel confident that she was really free.

"The Chinese government rarely let a Uighur prisoner go," she explained.

In fact she did not feel safe until she took her first step onto an aeroplane to take her out of China to the US.

Even though she has now left the country, Ms Kadeer believes the government is continuing to harass her relatives and business employees.

She said police had raided her business and taken away all its records, and were now pressing charges against some of her sons.

"I don't know what will happen. We're waiting to see, but I'm very worried," Ms Kadeer said.

She is also concerned about the plight of Uighurs who flee from China only to be deported back there if their asylum claims are rejected.

During her visit to Europe, she plans to lobby the German government to review the case of 50 asylum seekers.

"My main concern is that if these people are sent back, the Chinese government might imprison them or even execute them," she said.

Terrorist claims

The Uighurs, who are almost all Muslim and look and sound like Turks rather than Han Chinese, enjoyed a brief period of independence in the 1940s, calling their state the Republic of East Turkestan.

Muslim Uighurs

Some Uighurs are eager to re-establish an independent Islamic nation, and Xinjiang suffers periodic separatist violence which China is eager to suppress.

Ms Kadeer insists her campaign is peaceful - and that she wants to focus purely on improving human rights rather than the issue of separatism.

But she claims that the Chinese authorities have used the 11 September attacks on the US as an excuse to crack down on the Uighurs, citing the need to quell terrorist activity.

"It's easy for the government to say that Uighurs are terrorists, because they are Muslims," she said. "Many Uighurs have been falsely persecuted for this."

Beijing has named several Uighur groups it accuses of being behind attacks in the region, and it claims that some are also linked to the al-Qaeda network - a fact Ms Kadeer vehemently denies.

"I believe that history will show that they weren't terrorists at all," she said.

Despite the might of the Chinese government, Ms Kadeer is convinced that the international community will back her cause and "bring justice to the Uighur people".

"My people will win," she said.

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