The United States has condemned China’s apparent sentencing of Uygur intellectual Rahile Dawut to life imprisonment and called for her immediate release.
On Tuesday, the US House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party “strongly condemned” the sentence.
“Professor Dawut and all other illegally imprisoned individuals must be released immediately,” it said in a statement.
Dawut is a prominent anthropologist and folklorist who has been missing since December 2017. At the time of her disappearance, she was teaching at Xinjiang University and known for her meticulous records of Uygur religious traditions, structures and oral epic poetry.
According to John Kamm, director of San Francisco-based human rights organisation Dui Hua Foundation, Dawut had unsuccessfully attempted to appeal her sentence after she was first tried in 2018.
Dui Hua released a statement on September 21 saying that Dawut was serving a life sentence for “splittism” – a crime of endangering state security – citing a source in the Chinese government. The South China Morning Post was not able to independently confirm the report.
Dawut has been characterised by fellow scholars as apolitical and a moderate.
Rachel Harris, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said the Rahile Dawut she worked with was “politically moderate”.
“She was certainly not an opponent of the regime, and this was typical of the vast majority of Uygur academics I met in Urumqi,” Harris said.
But though Dawut’s research was largely apolitical, Harris added that it contradicted “a context where the history of the Uygur region is effectively being rewritten in an attempt to tie it more tightly to the Chinese sphere”.
According to Dui Hua, Dawut was a member of the Chinese Communist Party for many years and has received awards and grants from China’s Ministry of Culture.
She has also lectured or served as a visiting scholar at numerous North American and European universities, including Harvard, the University of British Columbia and Cambridge University.
The UN Human Rights Office’s 2022 assessment of Xinjiang said the “extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uygur and other predominantly Muslim groups” may “constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.
Without coming to “firm conclusions” regarding the extent of the destruction of religious sites, it called reports of the destruction of Islamic mosques, shrines and cemeteries “deeply concerning”.
In 2014, the Xinjiang government pledged to eradicate extremism in the region amid concerns of terrorism and separatism – efforts that the UN and rights groups said led to human rights violations.
Beijing maintains that there have been no terror attacks in Xinjiang since 2017 but that there were “thousands of terrorist attacks” in the region from 1990 to 2016.
It also “rightfully rejected” the UN’s findings in 2022. A 2021 white paper from the State Council Information Office denied the destruction of religious sites, suggesting instead that they were in disrepair and being reconstructed for safety reasons.
At a press briefing on September 22, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Mao Ning said she had “no information” on Rahile Dawut’s case, adding that China would “handle cases in accordance with the law”.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Dawut’s Seattle-based daughter, Akida Pulat, has been actively calling for her mother’s release for years but only learned of the sentence last month.
“The thought of my innocent mother having to spend her life in prison brings unbearable pain,” she said in a social media post in September.