BEIJING (AP) — A prominent Uyghur scholar specializing in the study of her people’s folklore and traditions has been sentenced to life in prison, according to a U.S.-based foundation that works on human rights cases in China.
Rahile Dawut was convicted on charges of endangering state security in December 2018 in a secret trial, the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation said in a statement Thursday. Dawut appealed but her conviction was upheld, the foundation said.
“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,” John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, said in a statement.
Dawut was a professor at Xinjiang University and founder of the school’s Ethnic Minorities Folklore Research Center. She disappeared in late 2017 amid a brutal government crackdown aimed at the Uyghurs, a Turkic, predominately Muslim ethnicity native to China’s northwest Xinjiang region.
For years, her exact status was unknown, as Chinese authorities didn’t disclose her whereabouts or the nature of the charges against her. That changed this month when the Dui Hua Foundation saw a Chinese government document disclosing that Dawut was sentenced to life in prison.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning said she had “no information” on Dawut’s case at a regular press briefing Friday, but added that China would “handle cases in accordance with the law.”
Dawut was internationally renowned for her work studying sacred Islamic sites and Uyghur cultural practices in Xinjiang and across Central Asia, authoring many articles and books and lecturing as a visiting scholar abroad, including at Cambridge and the University of Pennsylvania.
She is one of over 400 prominent academics, writers, performers and artists detained in Xinjiang, advocacy groups say. Critics say the government has targeted intellectuals as a way to dilute, or even erase, Uyghur culture, language and identity.
“Most prominent Uyghur intellectuals have been arrested. They’ve been indiscriminate,” said Joshua Freeman, an Academia Sinica researcher who used to work as a translator for Dawut. “I don’t think it is anything about her work that got her in trouble. I think what got her in trouble was that she was born a Uyghur.”
News of her life sentence shocked Freeman and other academics in Uyghur studies, as Dawut didn’t engage in activities opposing the Chinese government. Dawut was a member of the Chinese Communist Party and received grants and awards from the Chinese Ministry of Culture before her arrest.
Dawut’s daughter, Akeda Pulati, said she was stunned by the news and called on the Chinese authorities to release her mother.
“I know the Chinese government is torturing and persecuting the Uyghurs. But I didn’t expect them to be that cruel, to give my innocent mother a life sentence,” Pulati said. “Their cruelty is beyond my imagination.”
Pulati called Dawut “the hardest working person I’ve ever met,” saying that since she was a child, she had been inspired by her mother’s dedication to her career.
“She’s a very simple person — all she wants in her life is just to find enjoyment in her work and her career and do something good for society, for the people around her,” Pulati said.
Mukaddas Mijit, a Uyghur ethnomusicologist based in Brussels, said Dawut had been an important advisor to her and many other scholars early in their careers. Dawut was a critical bridge between global academia and Uyghur culture, Mijit said, mentoring a generation of prominent Uyghur scholars across the world.
“She was a guardian of Uyghur identity, and that’s something the Chinese government is after,” Mijit said. “They want to erase everything, and they want Uyghurs to forget how beautiful and colorful a culture they had.”