Tuesday, April 21, 2009
China casts wide net to curb terrorism
Paul Mooney, Foreign Correspondent
Ethnic Uighur soldiers hold a banner for an official ceremony to remember the 16 Chinese police officers killed in an alleged terrorist attack.
Peter Parks / AFP Photo
KASHGAR, CHINA // The two men were marched into a public stadium in Kashgar on April 9, where 4,000 people watched as the final execution order was read out. They were then taken away and executed at an unknown location nearby. According to China’s state media, the two were guilty of carrying out a terrorist attack that left 16 police dead last August, just four days before the opening of the 2008 Olympics.
Officials said Abdurahman Azat, 34, and Krubanjan Hemit, 29, were members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group the government says has been behind a string of terrorist acts in Xinjiang.
Experts on Xinjiang say, however, that the organisation no longer exists, it never had more than two handfuls of members, and there is no evidence it was ever involved in terrorist attacks. Some argue it never existed at all.
The executions came as the Chinese launched a clampdown in the predominantly Uighur cities of Hotan and Kashgar, in southern Xinjiang, in which more than 100 Uighurs have been arrested in recent months, many on charges of engaging in unspecified “illegal religious activities”. The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group, have long bristled at Chinese control of Xinjiang, which they call East Turkistan.
According to state media, Wang Lequan, the Xinjiang party secretary, announced last month during a visit to the two cities they were at the “forefront of the fight against the three evil forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism”.
The campaign lends an eerie feeling to Kashgar’s Old Town, an ancient honeycomb of alleyways lined by crumbling earth and brick structures. Women, wearing headscarves, walk past slogans painted on the walls exhorting people not to take part in “illegal religious activities”. Another slogan says the Islamic Liberation Party is a “violent terrorist organisation”.
“The security apparatus in Kashgar is intruding into all spheres of life for local Uighurs, and placing them under tremendous stress,” Rebiya Kadeer, a former political prisoner in Xinjiang and now a human rights leader based in Washington, said in a recent press release. “Uighurs in Kashgar feel as if they are living in an open-air jail, and fear that they or their family members may be detained at any moment.”
Ironically, before the September 11 attacks, local officials, eager to attract overseas investment, played down talk of a security problem. Nine days before the attacks in the United States, Wang Lequan welcomed visitors to the Urumqi trade fair saying that the situation in Xinjiang was “better than ever in history”.
Two weeks later, China began to stress the problem of terrorism in Xinjiang, making an effort to link Uighurs with global terrorist activities.
“Since 9/11 the Chinese government has attempted to create a false association between the Uighur struggle for national existence and global terrorist activities to justify the repressive treatment of the Uighurs,” said Nury Turkel former president of the Uyghur American Association, and a lawyer in Washington. “As a result, Uighurs face an uphill battle against China’s relentless propaganda machine.”
Yitzhak Shichor, professor of East Asian studies and political science at the University of Haifa in Israel, said the Chinese government inflates claims of terrorism in order to suppress anyone that might threaten its rule in the region.
“The Chinese are not so much concerned about the present, but the future, not actual acts, but potential acts,” Prof Shichor said.
Uighurs are perplexed by the claims of terrorism. “They just turn small incidents into big ones,” said a Kashgar taxi driver, when asked about such incidents.
Many experts on the Xinjiang region say the Chinese rhetoric has been effective, and criticise foreign media for doing a “cut and paste” of official statements when reporting on the issue.
In Aug 2002, the US state department designated ETIM a terrorist organisation with connections to al Qa’eda. Analysts say the decision was made hastily to win Chinese support for the global fight against terrorism, and was mainly based on unconfirmed information provided by China. One month later, the United Nations added ETIM to a similar list.
The general secretary of the Uyghur American Association, Alim Seytoff, said US officials now acknowledge off the record that the decision was a blunder.
Mehmet Tohti, vice president of the World Uyghur Congress, shot off a string of questions about ETIM: “Where is it located? Who is the head? Who are the members?
“So far the Chinese government has offered no evidence.”
Hasan Mahsum, the alleged former leader of ETIM, was reported killed in a raid by the Pakistani army in 2003, and Mr Seytoff said the organisation then became “dysfunctional, except for Chinese claims”.
Prof Shichor also questions Chinese claims. “I find it very hard to believe that with China’s controls and technology that there cold be organised terrorist groups in Xinjiang,” he said. “It doesn’t seem likely.”
Prof Shichor said that contrary to popular belief, the Chinese military presence in Xinjiang is “shallow” in terms of quantity and quality, proof that officials do not believe their own claims of a terrorist threat.
China reported a series of incidents last year in the run-up to the Olympics, but the claims were met with scepticism.
Regarding the murder of 16 police officers in Kashgar in August, photos provided by several foreign tourists, and witness accounts given to The New York Times offered a version of events different to that provided by the government.
State media reports alleged the attack was carried out with handmade weapons by a vegetable seller and a taxi driver.
But Sean Roberts, a professor of international relations at George Washington University, said it was doubtful a terrorist group was behind the incident and it is possible the attack was an “isolated incident of violence”. He added that if an organisation were involved, “we’d have to say the group is fairly unsophisticated and fairly unorganised”.
In another mysterious case last year, a Uighur woman is alleged to have smuggled bottles of gasoline on to an Air China plane – despite stepped-up security checks and special searches of Uighur passengers. “In such tight security, how could the woman have smuggled anything on to the plane?” said Mr Tohti of the World Uyghur Congress. “And if she did, why didn’t she use it?”
No further news was heard of the case afterwards.
Uighurs say the human rights situation has taken a turn for the worse since the Olympics spotlight was turned off China. They say the Chinese government is especially wary this year, which marks a number of sensitive anniversaries, including the occupation of Xinjiang by China’s People’s Liberation Army in Aug 1949.
Prof Roberts said the clampdown has made Islam “a political rallying point for Uighur dissatisfaction”, particularly in the south, where people feel the most threatened.
And According to Prof Shichor, this will give the government an excuse to further tighten its grip on Islam in Xinjiang. “The controls are becoming stronger and stronger, and not weaker,” he said.
“The prospects for democracy in China are becoming smaller and smaller.”