Activist says China cracks down on ethnic Uighurs

AP News
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Posted: Mar 23, 2011 3:15 AM
Activist says China cracks down on ethnic Uighurs

China has responded to popular uprisings against governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya by cracking down on its Uighur ethnic minority, an exiled Uighur activist said Wednesday.

Rebiya Kadeer spoke in an Australian Parliament House committee room at the invitation of two government lawmakers despite objections from China, which denounces her as a separatist.

The 65-year-old U.S.-based businesswoman said through an interpreter that the recent overthrow of Middle Eastern governments "sent shock waves through the Chinese leadership that people's patience could run out _ people will one day rise up and challenge the authority of the regime."

She said China had responded to the protests with a security crackdown that made the western cities of Kashgar and Urumqi resemble war zones as soldiers searched homes and rounded up members of her Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur minority and found excuses to detain them.

"What happened in Tunisia and Egypt has strong effects on Uighur people and the Chinese people because it gives the oppressed peoples hope for a better world and the hope for change," Kadeer told lawmakers, reporters and political staffers.

The Associated Press sought a response to Kadeer's comments from China's Foreign Ministry in Beijing, which did not immiately reply.

Human rights groups say China's massive security apparatus is using anxiety over possible Middle East-inspired protests as a pretext for a wide crackdown on anyone the government considers a threat to its authoritarian rule, including political activists.

Beijing blamed Kadeer for inciting riots in the Xinjiang region of western China in July 2009 between the Uighur minority and Han Chinese that left almost 200 dead. She denies the accusation.

China urged Australia to prevent her from visiting the country later that year. China then punished Australia for giving her a visa by canceling a senior Chinese minister's scheduled visit.

The Chinese Embassy also unsuccessfully pressured the National Press Club to drop her as a guest speaker during her visit to Australia, and was unable to get an international film festival to cancel a screening of a documentary about her life.

Kadeer described China's response to her current visit to Australia _ her first since 2009 _ as "mild."

"Although China has changed its tactics, China has not changed its assaults upon Uighur people's religious beliefs, cultural identities, freedom of speech and economic life, which are central to the Chinese government's project of speedy assimilation of our people in China," she said.

She said Chinese authorities had sentenced 36 people to death _ including four Uighurs last month _ for their involvement in the 2009 riots and protests.

The Chinese Embassy in Canberra did not respond Wednesday to The Associated Press' request for comment.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said last week that China was firmly opposed to any country providing a stage for Kadeer's activities, and that Beijing believed Australia understood that position.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement Wednesday that China had not asked Australia to block Kadeer's visit, but had sought assurances that it would be "handled carefully."

No Chinese official attended Kadeer's address Wednesday, but the state-owned Xinhua news agency made a video recording.