Uyghur Rights and Writers

Writers in Prison

The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN was set up in 1960 as a result of mounting concern about attempts to silence critical voices around the world and an office of volunteers was set up at the PEN head office in London to gather information and to alert the PEN membership to take action. The WiPC is now staffed by a team of experts who monitor around 1,000 attacks on writers, journalists, editors, poets, publishers and others in any given year. These include long prison terms, harassment, threats, and even murder.

The WiPC team alerts the PEN membership of urgent cases keeps it abreast of developments on individual cases of attacks as well as global trends affecting free expression and gives advice on actions and campaigns. These include protest letters, lobbying governments, and public awareness rising. Through writing to families, and, where possible, directly to prisoners, PEN members provide encouragement and hope. Today there are Writers in Prison Committees in 64 PEN Centers worldwide Uyghur PEN WiPC committee is one of active member of international WiPC committee.

Who are the Uyghurs?

There are officially 9-10 million Uyghurs (often also spelt Uyghurs) in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in the northwest of the PRC. They are an ancient indigenous Turkic ethnic group, Muslim by religion and with their own Turkic language. Xinjiang was formerly known as East Turkistan, invaded by the Chinese in 1949. It is a territory rich in gas, oil, precious metals and agriculture, which Beijing will not contemplate losing. In 1949, 3% of the population was Han Chinese, whereas it is now well over 45%, including many Chinese soldiers and workers on the huge paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corporation.

The Chinese have long been pursuing nationalistic policies of indoctrination and forced assimilation in Xinjiang. Increasingly, the Uyghurs live in the provinces rural villages, with the towns dominated by the more affluent Han and most Uyghurs employed in towns only holding menial jobs. Despite the drive towards assimilation, the result has been increasing segregation.

East Turkistan

How are they victims of human rights violations?

The Uyghurs suffer discrimination in a range of ways, both official and unofficial. They are subject to:

In February 1997, a peaceful protest by Uyghurs in Gulja city of the Ili valley was brutally crushed by the Chinese army. The city was sealed off for two weeks and thousands of Uyghurs were arrested. There were reports of torture and summary executions.

Since 9/11, any Uyghurs asserting their own minority identity, desire for equal rights or democratic ambitions for Xinjiang have been branded by Beijing as terrorists and religious extremists. Though there have been bombings in Xinjiangs cities in recent years, the vast majority of Uyghurs campaigning for their cultural and economic rights do so peacefully. It is understandable that the Chinese leadership should fear that Xinjiang may become Asias Kosovo, but their repression of the regions historic Uyghur language and culture only make anger and violence more likely.

How is Uyghur freedom of expression violated?

Uyghur writers are doubly vulnerable. Like other Chinese writers they are subject to censorship and an arbitrary judicial system, but, as members of a Muslim minority, they are particularly targeted as victims of cultural repression.

Li Yi, head of the Propaganda Bureau for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, was reported in Xinhua on 17 January 2008 as stressing the importance of censoring illegal religious and political publications. It was stated that in 2007 the XUAR authorities confiscated 6,999 copies of illegal political publications and 11,580 copies of illegal religious propaganda materials. In late May and June 2007, for example, there was a 13-day campaign which focused on censoring political and religious publications, alongside pornography. According to a July 2007 report on the Changji City Government website, the authorities in that city targeted items that they considered to incite religious fanatacism, propagate terrorism, advocate holy war, or to incite negative sentiments against the Han Chinese and/or promote the expulsion of Han from the region. No standards for determining whether works fall within these categories were cited.

List of Uyghur Writers Currently in Prison (1 March 2008)

Korash Huseyin

Editor of the Uyghur-language Kashgar Literary Journal, arrested for publishing Nurmuhemmet Yasins short story Wild Pigeon in late 2004 (see below). Chinese authorities consider the story to be a criticism of their governments presence in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Huseyin was sentenced to three years in prison and is due to be released in 2008.

Abdulghani Memetemin

Writer, teacher and translator from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, arrested July 26, 2002 after providing information to the East Turkestan Information Centre (ETIC), a Uyghur rights and pro-independence group run by exiled Uyghurs in Germany. Memetemin was convicted in June 2003 by the Kashgar Intermediate Peoples Court of violating state secrets and sending them outside the country and sentenced to nine years in prison. He was reportedly denied legal representation at his trial and has been tortured in prison.

Since 1999, Memetemin had provided information on a voluntary basis to the East Turkistan Information Centre (ETIC), a Uyghur rights and pro-independence group run by exiled Uyghurs in Germany and described by China as a terrorist group although the group is not known to have advocated or conducted any acts of violence. Charges against him are believed to have included translating State news articles into Chinese from Uyghur and forwarding official speeches of the Government to the ETIC, which is banned in China. He was also accused of recruiting other reporters for the ETIC.

Tohti Tuniyaz Tohti

The Uyghur writer and historian Tohti Tuniyaz (pen-name Muzart) was first arrested on 6 February 1998 in Urumchi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, whilst on a research trip from Japan, where he was living with his wife and children and studying for a Ph.D in Uyghur history and ethnic relations at Tokyo University. He was charged on 10 November 1998 with inciting national disunity and stealing state secrets for foreign persons (later amended by the Supreme Court to illegally acquiring state secrets).

The charges against him are believed to be linked to his university research, and specifically to a seditious book which he had allegedly had published in Japan in 1998 entitled The Inside Story of the Silk Road. According to the Chinese government, The Inside Story of the Silk Road advocates ethnic separation. However, neither the book nor its manuscript was submitted to the court as evidence, and as far as his teachers and colleagues know, Tohti wrote no such book in Japan.

He was reportedly convicted on 10 March 1999 by the Urumqi Intermediate Peoples Court and, following an appeal, was sentenced by the Supreme Court on 15 February 2000 to eleven years imprisonment and two years deprivation of political rights. The decision of the court was based on the supposition that the defendant intended to publish a book in Japanese in order to instigate national disunity, and that he had made copies of confidential documents with the intention of leaking them. PEN believes that his intention was only to collect source materials in order to complete his doctoral thesis on the modern history of the Uyghur people.

In spite of a vigorous campaign by Prof. Tsugitaka Sato of Tokyo University, and his subsequent adoption by the UN Working group on Arbitrary Detention, Tuniyaz remains incarcerated in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Prison No.3, Urumqi. It is reported that he has exhausted his legal appeals and that he will therefore remain imprisoned until his sentence expires on 31 March 2009.


Tohti Tuniyaz was born 1 October 1959 in Bay County, Aksu prefecture, Xinjiang Province, North West China. He adopted the name of the biggest river Muzart in Bay County as his pen-name.Tohti graduated from the history department of the Central Institute of Nationalities, Beijing, in 1984 and was assigned to work for the China National Standing Committee. During this time he reportedly formed a close relationship with former Xinjiang Governors Seyfudin Eziz and Ismail Emet, and was involved in the translation of Ezizs works. He started studying for his Ph.D at Tokyo University in 1995, specialising in the history of Chinese policy toward minority peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries, and was still completing his studies at the time of his arrest. He has reportedly published several papers on Uyghur history in Japan, and published a book on Uyghur history in 1995 in Beijing. In 2002, Tohti Tuniyaz was awarded the PEN America/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. He is an Honorary Member of the English, American, Canadian and Japanese PEN Centers.

Nurmuhemmet Yasin Nurmemet

Nurmuhemmet Yasin was arrested in Kashgar on 29 November 2004, shortly after the publication of his short story Wild Pigeon (Yawa Kepter) in the bi-monthly Uyghur-language Kashgar Literature Journal. Upon arrest, the authorities confiscated Yasins personal computer, which contained poems, commentaries, stories, and one unfinished novel. The editor of the Kashgar Literature Journal, Korash Huseyin, was also arrested. After a closed trial in February 2005, at which Yasin was reportedly denied a lawyer, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for inciting Uyghur separatism.His sentence was upheld on appeal by the Kashgar Intermediate Court, and Yasin was transferred on 19 May 2005 to Urumqi No.1 Prison, Urumqi City, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where he remains detained today. He has been permitted no visitors since his arrest.

The charge is believed to be based on the publication of Wild Pigeon, the fictional first-person narrative of a young pigeon who, having been trapped and caged by humans, ventures out to search for a new home for his flock. In the end, he commits suicide by swallowing a poisonous strawberry rather than sacrifice his freedom, just as his own father had done years earlier. The poisons from the strawberry flow through me,the unnamed pigeon remarks to himself at the end. Now, finally, I can die freely. I feel as if my soul is on fire - soaring and free. Yasins story was widely circulated and recommended for one of the biggest Uyghur literary websites in the Uyghur Autonomous Region for an outstanding literary award. However, it also attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities, who apparently consider the fable to be a tacit criticism of their government in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Nurmuhemmet Yasin, aged 31, is an award-winning and prolific freelance Uyghur writer who has published many highly acclaimed literary works and prose-poems in recent years, including the poetry collections First Love, Crying from the Heart, and Come on Children. He is married with two young sons.

Wild Pigeon was translated from the Uyghur into English and Chinese by Dolkun Kamberi, director of Radio Free Asias (RFA) Uyghur service. It has been adapted for broadcast by RFAs Uyghur service, edited in English by Sarah Jackson-Han, and produced for the English Web by Luisetta Mudie.

Nurmuhemmet Yasin is an Honorary Member of the English, American and Independent Chinese PEN Centers.

Uyghur Pen

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