Updated on Sept. 21, 2023, at 4:45 p.m. EDT
An internationally recognized expert in Uyghur folklore and ethnographer who disappeared in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region nearly six years ago has been confirmed as serving a life sentence for endangering state security, a U.S.-based human rights group said Thursday.
Rahile Dawut was tried and convicted in December 2018 for the crime of “splittism” by an intermediate people’s court in Xinjiang, and unsuccessfully appealed that sentence, the group said.
“The most recent information confirmed that her appeal was subsequently rejected by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region High People’s Court,” the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation said in a statement, citing a source in the Chinese government. Dui Hua had been pressing Beijing about her case for several years.
“Although there has been speculation that Professor Rahile Dawut was given a long sentence, this is believed to be the first time that a reliable source in the Chinese government has confirmed the sentence of life imprisonment,” it said.
“This is devastating news,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. “A life sentence for a person who serves her people with integrity and compassion is a true outrage.”
Dawut, who was born in 1966, created and directed the university’s Minorities Folklore Research Center and wrote dozens of articles in international journals and a number of books, including studies on Islamic sacred sites in Central Asia, and presented her work at conferences around the world.
An anthropologist by training, she disappeared in December 2017, believed to have been arrested and detained in one of the many internment camps in a mass incarceration campaign launched that year by Chinese authorities.
After years of Chinese silence on her case, RFA Uyghur learned in July 2021 through interviews with employees of Xinjiang University that the star scholar was in fact detained in 2017 along with other members of the Uyghur intellectual and cultural elite, and sentenced and jailed in 2018.
“Professor Rahile Dawut joins the long and growing list of Uyghur intellectuals — by one count more than 300 — who have been detained, arrested, and imprisoned since 2016,” said the Dui Hua Foundation.
The non-profit group, which focuses on seeking prisoner releases and justice reforms through direct dialogue with the Chinese government, said it had put Dawut’s name on 28 lists of prisoners of concern submitted to the Chinese government, and had received four responses.
China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs in a network of detention camps constructed in 2017, with smaller numbers of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, fellow Turkic-speaking people, also incarcerated in the system. Beijing first denied the existence of the camps, but later changed tack and described them as vocational training or re-education centers aimed at combating extremism in Xinjiang.
China’s targeting of intellectuals, artists, teachers and cultural figures — erasing the Uyghur identity — was part of the case made by Western governments and some rights groups when they determined 2021 that Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang amounted to genocide. China rejects the charge.
“The Chinese state has taken a wrecking ball to any expressions of Uyghurness outside of its purview. As a gifted academic documenting Uyghur knowledge, targeting Rahile is no coincidence,” said Henryk Szadziewski, research director at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
New York-based rights group Scholars at Risk gave Dawut their Courage to Think Award in 2020. Scholars and writers worldwide have also called for her release.
“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.
Edited by Malcolm Foster
This story has been updated with the reaction of a Uyghur human rights group.