China, in Harsh Crackdown, Executes Muslim Separatists


HOTAN, China  A crowd gathered in a sports stadium

beneath a blue morning sky here in October to watch

court officials sentence a man to death, a scene that

has been played out hundreds of times across China

this year as part of the Communist Party's latest

drive against crime.

But this rally was different. The man, Metrozi

Mettohti, 34, was given the death penalty for trying

to "split the country" and for storing weapons as part

of a persistent and occasionally violent separatist

movement among China's Uighurs, the Turkic- speaking

ethnic group of nine million people, most of them

Muslims, concentrated along the country's far western


Six other men were given jail terms of up to 12 years

that day for separatist activities, said local

residents and activists abroad. According to one

account, Mr. Mettohti shouted "Long live Eastern

Turkestan!"  the name of the country separatists

would like to create  before being gagged. 

After the rally, local people say, he was put in the

back of a truck, driven to a village outside of town

and shot in the back of the head. The execution could

not be officially verified.

The fragile, fertile strip between China's rugged

western mountains and its vast western desert is the

only place in the country where people are regularly

put to death for political offenses. The country's

current anticrime drive, coupled with a renewed focus

on Islamic militancy in the wake of the American-led

war on terrorism, has only increased the pace of the

executions, Uighurs say.

"The government gives very little information about

the people who are executed, and news of executions

isn't published outside the places where they occur,"

said a young Uighur man in Hotan, speaking in the

privacy of a car in a region where most everyone is

jittery when talking to outsiders. 

"Have you heard of `hazat?' " he said, using the

Uighur word for jihad, or Islamic holy war. But he was

startled when he saw the word written in a reporter's

notebook and insisted that his cellphone number be

torn from the same page. 

Then he thought better of discussing politics at all,

and with good reason. His brother had been released

just days earlier after nearly a decade in jail for

publishing separatist tracts. "The secret police are

everywhere," the young man said. "You never know who

they are."

Most of the Uighurs condemned to death here are

charged with murder or with otherwise causing deaths,

but some, like Mr. Mettohti, are being executed for

lesser transgressions.

The Chinese government says the executions are meant

to keep the separatist threat in check, arguing that

Beijing is battling Islamic terrorists not unlike

those the United States is fighting in Afghanistan,

just a few hundred miles away.

But Uighurs say that the number of executions is

incommensurate with the threat posed by separatists

and that many innocent people have been swept up in

the crackdown. Some of those charged with separatism

are simply frustrated young men demanding their

rights, they say, adding that the war against

terrorism war has given Beijing the political cover to

pursue policies that are meant to erode their cultural


At least 25 Uighurs have been executed this year and

scores more are waiting on death row, say people who

track these executions in the local news media. They

say the number is probably much higher because the

government in August stopped publicizing most of the

executions, which Uighurs say are part of a larger

effort to suppress legitimate dissent and accelerate

the ethnic group's assimilation into the country's

larger Han Chinese population. 

This sparsely populated area's oases once watered

camels and fortified travelers with raisins, mutton

and bread while they paused between mountains and

desert on the fabled Silk Road. The Uighurs' local

economy is still made up of such stuff.

Though called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

today, its autonomy is largely symbolic because all

major policy decisions are made by the Communist Party

and almost all of the region's senior party posts are

held by ethnic Chinese. Though Uighurs accounted for

more than 90 percent of the region's population when

the party came to power in 1949, they account for less

than half now.

Hopes for an independent homeland increased after the

breakup of the Soviet Union, when a cluster of new,

independent Turkic countries appeared on China's

western border. But a quick Chinese crackdown dashed

those hopes. By the late 1990's, the separatist

movement had turned increasingly violent, culminating

in a series of bombings and clashes with the police in

1996 and 1997.

The Uighurs are at the eastern end of a swath of

Turkic-speaking Central Asia that stretches from the

Bosporus to the western edge of the Mongolian steppes

and includes 120 million people.

For centuries, the area was ruled by various khans

until the Qing dynasty took control here in the mid-

18th century. The Qing court consolidated its hold on

the region in the mid-19th century with the help of

China's legendary General Zuo Zongtang (better known

in the West as General Tso, for whom a popular chicken

dish is named). He renamed the area Xinjiang, or New


Today, Xinjiang is China's largest province,

accounting for one-sixth of the country's land and

much of its valuable natural resources, most notably


Despite centuries of Chinese rule, though, the Uighurs

have maintained a vibrant culture, with writers and

musicians continuing to produce popular works  some

now banned by the government  in the Turkic language.

They re-established contact with the Muslim world in

the 1980's as the country opened up again. Some

Uighurs were allowed to travel to Mecca for the hajj,

Islam's annual pilgrimage, and many young Uighurs who

made the trip brought back a renewed sense of their

religious and cultural identity.

How many Uighur separatists are operating in Xinjiang

today is impossible to estimate. China says several

hundred Uighurs have received training from the Afghan

Taliban, and several Uighurs are among the Taliban

fighters who have been captured in Afghanistan in the

last few weeks. But the number of serious separatists

inside China is still believed to be small.

"This is mostly social and civil unrest by

disorganized, disgruntled, fairly impulsive young men,

not a widespread movement," said Dru C. Gladney, a

professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii

who follows developments in Xinjiang.

The unrest of the late 1990's resulted in a surge of

executions. Amnesty International reported that at

least 190 people, an average of nearly two a week,

were put to death in Xinjiang from January 1997 to

April 1999.

Several of the executions this year have taken place

in Yili, known as Yining in Chinese, where a Uighur

demonstration protesting China's restrictive policies

erupted into a riot in February 1997. At least nine

people died in the melee, scores of Uighurs were

arrested and many of them were sentenced to death or

long prison terms.

As recently as Oct. 15, two Uighurs were executed in

Yili for their roles in the riots, according to local

press reports. Three other Uighurs were given the

death penalty with a two- year suspension and six more

were sentenced to jail terms, two for life.

The repression has deepened Uighur resentment of the

Chinese, but has also eroded sympathy for the

separatists. In Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road market

town, talk of the political tensions are nervously

dismissed by most people, many of whom say the desire

for independence remains, but the hope for it is gone.

"We just want to make money and live in peace," said a

young Uighur businessman in Kashgar. "The separatists

have brought pressure on everyone."

The anticrime campaign is not likely to stop the

periodic violence.

In September, local Uighurs say, a gun battle on the

road from Kashgar to the Pakistan border left one

policeman and two Uighurs dead. A third Uighur

involved in the incident was caught and is expected to

be executed soon. 

The government has called for an intensification of

the crackdown in Xinjiang.

China's vast state security apparatus monitors tens of

thousands of people whose allegiance to the Communist

Party is suspect. While the majority of Chinese enjoy

a level of freedom today unprecedented in the 52 years

since the Communist Party took control, the party is

unforgiving and unrelenting in its pursuit of anyone

who challenges its rule.

In Uch Turfan, or Wushi, a county seat in a crook of

the snowy-peaked Heavenly Mountains, which separate

China from Kyrgyzstan, armed guards patrol bridges and

children scatter in panic when a strange car stops

near them.

The town has been a center of anti- Chinese sentiment

since the mid-18th century, when Qing troops were sent

here to quell a Uighur uprising.

According to Uighur legend, seven girls retreated to a

rocky mount at one end of town and resisted the troops

for days until they were killed by cannon fire. Access

to their tomb atop the mount is now blocked by a

locked gate.

Local residents, most of whom are reluctant to speak

to foreigners, say 28 Uighurs were sentenced at a

rally outside the town's movie theater on Nov. 11.

Among them was a man who had translated the United

Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights into

the Uighur language and distributed it to others. He

was reportedly given a 20-year jail term.

Most of the others were also charged with political

activities and two were executed immediately after the

rally. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the East

Turkestan Information Center, based in Sweden, said

the men were political activists, but an Uch Turfan

court official, reached by telephone, insisted that

the men had been executed for murders unrelated to


China acknowledges that its prisons hold nearly 2,000

political prisoners, most serving sentences for

endangering state security, according to China's

Justice Department.

But those numbers do not include people locked up in

the country's reform-through-labor camps, to which the

Public Security Bureau has the power to sentence

people without trial. In the last three years, there

has been a marked increase in the imprisonment of

religious activists in such camps, including Uighur


Nor does the Justice Ministry's count include

political activists charged with other criminal

offenses. Many of the state's political enemies are

convicted of disturbing social order, illegal

publishing or even consorting with prostitutes.

Thousands of people are held for days, weeks or even

months in Public Security Bureau detention centers and

Communist Party guest houses while under investigation

for political crimes. The country's Religious Affairs

Bureau has even put bishops loyal to the pope into

retirement homes where they are neither allowed to

leave nor receive visitors.

The political activists in Xinjiang stand out because

of the potency of their dissent and the power of the

government's reaction.

Many towns in southern Xinjiang are populated almost

entirely by Uighurs, and Chinese rule of the territory

has long been marked by Uighur uprisings. 

In 1933, the short-lived Eastern Turkestan Islamic

Republic was declared in Kashgar. A decade later,

Uighurs tried to found another republic farther north

in Yili and governed a semiautonomous area there under

Kuomintang control until the Communists took over in

1949. Uighurs in Hotan staged another failed uprising

in 1954 before lapsing into decades of isolation under


Fearing that Islamic orthodoxy could be used as a

cloak or catalyst for political activism, China is

quietly trying to stop its spread and suppress its

religious practices. Dozens of illegal religious

schools and unauthorized mosques have been shut this

year, according to people and press reports here.

Government employees risk their jobs if they go to

mosques, and women working for the government are

forbidden to wear veils.

The government denies that it has also stepped up

efforts to dissuade Uighurs from observing Ramadan,

Islam's holy month of daylight fasting. But Uighurs

say that restaurants and food stalls are given tax

breaks if they stay open in the daytime and that

schoolchildren are prohibited from going home at

lunchtime and are encouraged to eat a noon meal at


Mainstream Uighurs say the repression and the drumbeat

of executions threaten to turn a small ethnic- based

movement into a more volatile religious one.

Near the medieval bazaar in this ancient Silk Road

town where Mr. Mettohti lived stands a beige-brick

mosque, which is closed and uncompleted, leaving local

Muslims yet again without their traditional home for

the festivals at the end of Ramadan.

Asking why the mosque's main gate remains boarded up,

years after construction began, makes residents

visibly nervous.

"We wanted to build it taller, but the government

would not agree," said a young Uighur man with a thick

black mustache.

To isolate orthodox Uighur Muslims, some of whom have

been influenced by the extreme Wahhabism of Saudi

Arabia and Pakistan, Beijing is mounting a political

re-education campaign for 8,000 imams in charge of the

region's state-sanctioned mosques.

The campaign started in mid- March and will run until

the end of December. The Muslim leaders are required

to attend seminars on religious and political policies

set by the government and on Xinjiang history as

written by the Communist Party.

"These lessons are essential to the long-term

stability of Xinjiang," said a recent report by the

official New China News Agency, "as they will guide

our students away from ideological confusion and



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