Xinjiang Court Imposes Prison Sentences on Uyghur Journalist and Webmasters

August 7, 2010

A court in the far western region of Xinjiang sentenced a journalist and three Web site administrators to prison sentences in July for endangering state security. Gheyret Niyaz, a Uyghur journalist and Web editor, received a 15-year prison sentence. Prosecutors at trial cited essays he wrote addressing economic and social problems affecting Uyghurs; sources also connected the case to interviews he gave to foreign media after demonstrations and rioting in Xinjiang in July 2009. In separate cases, Web site administrators Nijat Azat, Dilshat Perhat, and Nureli received sentences of 10, 5, and 3 years, respectively, on the same charges, in reported connection to articles posted on their Web sites describing hardships in Xinjiang and announcements on one of the Web sites calling for the demonstration in Urumqi in July 2009. Other Uyghur journalists, writers, and Web site workers from Xinjiang remain in prison or in detention for exercising their right to free expression, including people whose cases also are connected to the July 2009 events.

Urumqi Court Sentences Journalist Gheyret Niyaz

The Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) sentenced Uyghur journalist and Web site editor Gheyret Niyaz to 15 years' imprisonment on July 23, 2010, for endangering state security, according to a July 23 Associated Press (AP) article (via Washington Post), July 23 posting on the Web site Uyghur Online, and July 22 Radio Free Asia (RFA) article. China's Criminal Law (Articles 102-113) defines several different crimes of endangering state security (also translated as "endangering national security"), and a July 30 open letter signed by Chinese scholars and writers calling for Gheyret Niyaz's release (via Chinese Human Rights Defenders and Boxun, July 30) reported that the charge was "leaking state secrets," a crime under Article 111 of the Criminal Law.

As described in the RFA report, sources close to Gheyret Niyaz connected his case to interviews he gave to overseas media following demonstrations and rioting in Urumqi in July 2009. One source reported that police told Gheyret Niyaz that he gave "too many interviews" to foreign media, according to RFA. In court, prosecutors cited essays that Gheyret Niyaz had written and published on the Internet before the July events that addressed economic and social problems affecting Uyghurs, Ilham Tohti, a friend of Gheyret Niyaz's, said in the AP article. Gheyret Niyaz told authorities in court that he authored the essays and accepted interviews from foreign media but argued that these did not violate Chinese law, according to an account of the trial by Gheyret Niyaz's wife as related in the AP article. Article 35 of China's Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Article 41 guarantees Chinese citizens the right to criticize their government.

Authorities reportedly prevented Gheyret Niyaz from being represented by the lawyer chosen by his family, according to July 23 reports from Amnesty International and the Uyghur American Association. According to July 20 articles (1, 2) from RFA, Ilham Tohti reported that Gheyret Niyaz's wife was told by authorities she could have Ilham Tohti hire a lawyer for the family. After he found a lawyer in Beijing to take the case, however, Gheyret Niyaz's wife said the family could not use a Beijing lawyer, and that they now had a lawyer from the XUAR, whom she did not know, according to the articles.

As reported in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China Political Prisoner Database, Gheyret Niyaz was originally taken away from his house on October 1, 2009, and his family was told on October 4 that he was under suspicion for endangering state security. Gheyret Niyaz had worked as an editor and manager for Uyghur Online, which had been accused of contributing to unrest in July 2009. Gheyret Niyaz also had been a journalist for the Xinjiang Economic Daily and Xinjiang Legal Daily. He was last known to be held at the Tianshan district PSB detention center in Urumqi. Gheyret Niyaz's conviction for endangering state security (ESS) comes as ESS trials in the XUAR have spiked in recent years.

Articles apparently connected to Gheyret Niyaz's case include an interview published in the August 2, 2009, edition of the Hong Kong-based Asia Weekly that criticizes some aspects of government policy in the XUAR but also reiterates some Chinese government positions toward the region.

In the interview, Gheyret Niyaz said that he notified contacts in the government in advance of the demonstration planned for July 5, 2009, anticipating that unrest would break out and urging authorities to take precautions. He also discussed in the interview two policies in the XUAR that he said prompted dissatisfaction among Uyghurs. He stressed that Mandarin-focused bilingual education policies resulted in widespread lay-offs of teachers and emphasized that programs to transfer Uyghur women to jobs in the interior of China have fueled discontent among Uyghur communities that feared the programs would result in prostitution and intermarriage. In the interview, Gheyret Niyaz also said that Uyghurs have no historical basis for seeking independence and argued that then-Party Secretary Wang Lequan had placed too much emphasis on the issue of separatism in the region. He blamed events in July 2009 on the international Islamic political movement Hizb ut-Tahrir. Authorities in China have described Hizb ut-Tahrir as a threat to the region and official media specifically blamed another instance of protest in the region on the organization. Authorities have described the July 5 events as violent criminal activity organized by overseas "forces" and also have cast blame specifically on U.S.-based Uyghur rights advocate Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress. (For more articles by Gheyret Niyaz, see, e.g., an essay published July 29 in the Singapore United Morning News and a Web site identified as his blog.)

Urumqi Court Sentences Webmasters Nijat Azat, Dilshat Perhat, and Nureli

Around the same time as Gheyret Niyaz's trial, the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court sentenced three Web site administrators to multi-year prison terms also for endangering state security (ESS), according to July 28 reports from RFA (English, Uyghur) and a July 29 press release from the Uyghur American Association (UAA), based on information from a brother of one of the Web administrators. As in the case of Gheyret Niyaz, the specific ESS charges applied to their cases are not known. According to Dilmurat Perhat, cited in the articles, his brother Dilshat Perhat, Web administrator and owner of the Web site Diyarim, received a 5-year sentence, Shabnam Web administrator Nijat Azat received a 10-year sentence, and Salkin Web administrator Nureli received a 3-year sentence. The trials, which were closed to the public, were thought to take place on July 23 or 24, according to the UAA report. Family members received notice of the trials one day in advance, according to the RFA Uyghur article.

Authorities had blamed some Uyghur Web sites for contributing to unrest in Urumqi on July 5, according to the UAA press release and RFA Uyghur report, and the Web sites affiliated with the cases, now shut down, had contained announcements calling for a peaceful demonstration in Urumqi on July 5, according to the UAA report. In July 2009, XUAR government Chairperson Nur Bekri mentioned Uyghur Online and Diyarim among Web sites he said "stirred up propaganda" and "spread rumors" on July 5. (See, e.g., a July 9 Associated Press article, via the Guardian, and clip of Nur Bekri's speech on YouTube.) A July 30 article from the New York Times reported that relatives and friends close to the cases connected them to the three Web site administrators' "failing to quickly delete content that openly discussed the difficulties of life in Xinjiang and, in one case, for allowing users to post messages announcing the protests last summer that turned violent." Dilmurat Perhat said his brother had erased announcements on his Web site's message board and notified police, according to the UAA press release and NY Times article.

Chinese laws and regulations place a legal burden on Internet companies to monitor content on the Web and censor information deemed unacceptable by the government. The 2000 Measures for the Administration of Internet Information Services prohibit providers of Internet information services from disseminating content that falls into any one of a number of vaguely worded categories, including information "harming the honor or the interests of the nation," "spreading rumors," or "disrupting national policies on religion" (Article 15). The Chinese government's regulation of the Internet and other electronic communications violates international standards for free expression. See related CECC analyses (1, 2) for more information.

As reported in the CECC Political Prisoner Database, unidentified men in Urumqi took Dilshat Perhat from his home on August 7, 2009. Authorities had previously interrogated Dilshat Perhat from July 24 until August 2 in connection to the demonstration and violence in Urumqi on July 5. Other people involved with Uyghur Web sites―including Nureli, Selkin administrator Muhemmet, Diyarim worker Obulqasim, and Diyarim contributors Xeyrinisa, Xalnur, and Erkin―also were reportedly detained during the same periods. (Three Diyarim administrators known only by the pen names "Muztagh," "Lükchek," and "Yanchuqchi" also were taken into detention, according to a December 11, 2009, article from RFA's Uyghur service.)

Other Journalists, Writers, and Online Authors Remain in Detention

Other Uyghur journalists, writers, and online authors from the XUAR remain in detention for exercising their right to freedom of expression, as do fellow journalists and online authors elsewhere in China, including in cases connected to crimes of endangering state security. For information on cases from the XUAR, see, in addition to the cases mentioned above, records on Mehbube Ablesh, Nurmemet Yasin, and Abdulghani Memetemin in the CECC Political Prisoner Database. For cases of journalists and online authors imprisoned elsewhere in China, see, for example, the cases of Liu Xiaobo, Yang Chunlin, Tan Zuoren, and Shi Tao. The four recent prison sentences come as authorities in the XUAR impose harsh controls over the free flow of information from the region.

For more information, see a related CECC analysis and for general information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV―Xinjiang in the CECC 2009 Annual Report. For information on how Chinese officials use endangering state security crimes to punish free expression in violation of international human rights standards, see Subversion and Inciting Subversion in Section II―Freedom of Expression.