WASHINGTON – Not long ago, Rebiya Kadeer was considered a symbol of success in modern China: a woman, a Muslim and a millionaire entrepreneur who also held a prestigious post with the Communist government.
Now she is an exile living in the suburbs of Virginia, accused of fomenting riots and rebellion half a world away that have left 156 people dead.
“While I was in China, I tried to work within the system to seek freedom for the Uighur people,” Kadeer said through an interpreter. “I did my best, but I failed.”
Kadeer called the news conference at the National Press Club to formally refute accusations by the Chinese government that she orchestrated riots between ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in China of which she is a member, and ethnic Han Chinese.
Evidence against her, according to state media, included a police recording of a call she allegedly made in which she said “Something will happen in Urumqi,” a city in the Xinjiang province of China in which many Uighurs live.
Kadeer explained at the news conference that she learned from Web sites of protests planned by Uighurs, and she called her brother to urge him and other family members to stay away. Kadeer said her family is frequently singled out for persecution – two sons remain imprisoned – and she feared for her family’s safety if they were caught up in the protest.
Kadeer is now president of the World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur American Association. She spent six years in a Chinese prison before being released and beginning life in the U.S. in 2005 as an exile. She was granted political asylum and now lives in Fairfax, Va., just outside the nation’s capital, according to court documents.
Uighurs frequently compare their persecution to that imposed on Tibet, but say their cause is not as well known because they lack a Dalai Lama to publicize their cause.
Kadeer has emerged as a somewhat unlikely foe of China’s government. In the 1980s and ’90s, she became a symbol of the prosperity that China’s newly launched market reforms were creating after decades of Communist poverty. The entrepreneurial mother of 11 built up a successful trading company and was named to a prestigious government advisory body. Government officials often took visitors to the department store she founded in Urumqi to show that Uighurs were also getting rich.
As she climbed into the establishment, separatism was gaining a foothold in Xinjiang. Protests against Chinese rule drew a harsh response from Beijing, which tightened security and restrictions on Islam. Kadeer’s husband fled to the U.S., becoming an activist for Xinjiang’s independence.
She was pressured to divorce him, but instead she grew more critical.
In a book she authored earlier this year titled “Dragon Fighter,” Kadeer described a speech she gave in 1997 to the National People’s Congress in Beijing. She submitted for approval a glowing speech in which she praised Uighurs’ treatment, but secretly planned to read a withering critique that began “Is it our fault that the Chinese have occupied our land? That we live under such horrible conditions?”
After making the critical speech, she was stripped of all her titles and responsibilities. In 1999, police detained her on her way to meet visiting U.S. Congress staff members in Urumqi. Among her allegedly seditious crimes was sending newspaper clippings on protests in Xinjiang to her husband overseas.
Now Kadeer has become what Uighur exiles lacked for many years: a compelling figure who could rally the far-flung community and for foreigners put a human face on a struggle for self-determination in their little-known homeland. In 2006, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Alarmed by her growing profile, Beijing has accused Kadeer of having a hand in many of Xinjiang’s problems. Foreign Ministry spokesmen have publicly accused her of having links to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a group the U.S. put on its terrorist blacklist. Beijing has not provided evidence to support the allegation. Aside from denying the claim, Kadeer repeatedly calls for nonviolent protest.
“The Chinese government always blames me and the World Uyghur Congress for problems over there,” Kadeer said at Monday’s press conference. The real problem, she said, is brutal repression of Uighurs by the government.
“Any Uighur who dares to express the slightest protest, however peaceful, is dealt with by brutal force,” Kadeer said.
While she said the government is to blame for the recent violence, she also condemned “the violent actions of some of the Uighur demonstrators” and said her organization only supports peaceful protests.
She said she and her organizations mourn the loss of life of both Uighurs and Han Chinese, but she estimated that more than 90 per cent of those killed have been Uighurs.
Associated Press Writer Charles Hutzler contributed to this report from Beijing.