Uygur ex-head of Xinjiang education department gets suspended death sentence

Jun Mai
·4-min read

The former head of the Xinjiang education department has been handed a suspended death sentence and five other Uygurs given hefty prison terms for their roles in writing and publishing of a number of school textbooks deemed “problematic” by local authorities, according to state media reports.

Sattar Sawut was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve after being found guilty of separatism and taking bribes, Xinhua quoted a top judge in the region as saying on Tuesday.

The charges were built around Sawut’s role in writing and publishing of Uygur-language textbooks that were used in primary and secondary schools in Xinjiang for 13 years but in 2016 were deemed by the regional government to be inciting ethnic hatred and “separatist thoughts”.

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His deputy at the education department and two publishers of the books were each given life sentences, while two editors from the same publishing house were also found guilty, but their sentences were not specified. None of the other defendants were named.

The report did not say when the sentences were handed down, but Sawut had been under investigation since 2017.

The court ruled that the textbooks had incited people to carry out a series of violent and sometimes deadly attacks in Xinjiang between 2009 and 2014, the report said. Close to 200 people were killed in the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the regional capital.

Details of the sentencing came as Beijing continues to defend its policies in Xinjiang against widespread allegations of discrimination against Uygur people and even charges of genocide.

In recent weeks, China’s state media have rolled out a series of reports and commentaries condemning foreign companies for their views on Xinjiang cotton. Beijing is also endorsing lawsuits against overseas academics and media outlets critical of its Xinjiang policies.

The only evidence offered by Beijing regarding the problematic textbooks was shown in a documentary aired on Friday by state-run CGTN. Almost all of the problems cited concerned a short-lived government in the region in the 1940s – the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) – a chapter of Xinjiang’s history that Beijing feels ambivalent about.

In one case, an interviewee referred to a textbook’s inclusion of a picture of Ehmetjan Qasim, a founding member of the ETR in the 1940s, with the emblem of the government pinned to his collar.

That Soviet-backed government, which turned to the Communist Party after its revolt against the Nationalists, was incorporated by Beijing in its narrative as part of the nationwide revolution and Qasim – a Moscow-trained Marxist who later died on a Soviet plane flying to Beijing – was later lionised by the Communist Party as a national hero.

But in most pictures of Qasim used by Chinese authorities, the ETR emblem is cropped out. And Beijing has almost always referred to that Uygur government as “the three district revolution” instead of the ETR, as it is keen to avoid any references to the highly sensitive name.

Another of the problematic pictures in the textbooks showed clashes between Uygur fighters and Han-looking soldiers with the Chinese Nationalist Party in the 1940s. Beijing still calls the uprising a just revolution.

The overhaul of the Uygur-language textbooks, as well as a purge of the region’s education regulators seemed to begin in the second half of 2016, months before Sawut was placed under investigation by the Communist Party.

The same year saw the appointment of the region’s incumbent party chief, Chen Quanguo, who is considered a key figure in the implementation of Beijing’s policies in the region and was put on a US sanction list last year.

Meanwhile, Shirzat Bawudun, a former head of the Xinjiang department of justice, has also been sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve on separatism charges, the report said.

Wang Langtao, vice-president of Xinjiang’s regional court, said Bawudun had conspired with a terrorist organisation and taken bribes. The court said he colluded with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – listed as a terrorist group by the United Nations – after meeting a member of the group in 2003, Xinhua reported.

The US delisted the group as a terrorist organisation in November, citing a lack of evidence that the group still existed.

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