Life sentence for Uyghur scholar shocks academics, activists

Confirmation that acclaimed Uyghur ethnography professor Rahile Dawut, who founded a Uyghur folklore institute at China’s Xinjiang University and is well-known internationally, has been sentenced to life imprisonment by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang province has sent shock waves through the international academic community and among human rights activists.

Dui Hua, a humanitarian organisation campaigning for better treatment of detainees in China, confirmed on 21 September that Dawut is serving a life sentence for endangering state security, known as ‘splittism’ in China, citing a reliable source in the Chinese government. It was the first confirmation of Dawut’s sentence to emerge since she disappeared six years ago.

“The sentencing of Professor Rahile Dawut to life in prison is a cruel tragedy, a great loss for the Uyghur people, and for all who treasure academic freedom,” said John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation. “I call for her immediate release and safe return to her family.”

While nothing had been known of her whereabouts since her disappearance in 2017, Dui Hua had previously been told by a Chinese official that Dawut was tried in December 2018, one year after her detention, by an intermediate people’s court in Xinjiang. She was convicted and appealed the sentence.

“The most recent information confirmed that her appeal was subsequently rejected by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region High People’s Court,” Dui Hua said, adding that “Dui Hua is unaware of any acquittals in cases of splittism in recent years. Such trials are held in secret.”

International condemnation

The Open Society University Network (OSUN) condemned the decision of a Chinese court to sentence Dawut. It noted in a statement that she was named the first ever OSUN Honorary Professor of Humanities in 2020 and described her as “a brilliant teacher and researcher whose work has guided a generation of young scholars worldwide in deepening our knowledge of Uyghur culture”.

Calling on the Chinese government to release her and allow her to resume her important work immediately, OSUN said: “The court’s sentence is an assault on academic freedom, the Uyghur people, and the rule of law.”

SOAS University of London, in a statement on 26 September, said that Dawut had collaborated with SOAS in previous research projects on Uyghur folklore and traditions.

“At SOAS we are committed to protecting academic freedom, which includes the freedom to conduct research that is responsive to the marginalised communities of our world. The news of her imprisonment is devastating, and we collectively call for her immediate and safe release,” the statement read.

“Professor Dawut’s sentence is not evidence of any wrongdoing on her part, but of Beijing’s unrelenting cultural persecution of Uyghurs, hostility to free expression and disdain for fair trial rights – all serious violations of international law,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

“This development should catalyse renewed international calls for an independent investigation into crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and prompt the academic institutions with which Dawut has had ties, including Cambridge, Cornell, and Harvard universities, to call for her immediate release,” Richardson added.

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