One year ago this week, Rebiya Kadeer was waiting in a room at Beijing International Airport with a dozen or so uniformed Chinese police, not believing what was happening, not daring to hope her ordeal was coming to an end.
A few hours earlier she had been in the prison cell–the same place she had been for nearly six years, and expected to spend the next 18 months. It was punishment for sending newspaper clippings about the Uyghur people to her husband in America. She had been detained on charges of “leaking state secrets.”
She was once hailed by the Chinese government as proof of their benevolence and tolerance towards non-Chinese citizens of China. A self-made multimillionaire and mother of eleven, Kadeer was given senior government advisory positions and even represented China at the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing.
But her passion was not for Chinese Communism. Instead, she increasingly used her wealth and influence to fight for the rights of the Uyghur people in their homeland of East Turkistan, renamed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by the Chinese government. At some point she crossed a line, and, in a matter of months, went from being a celebrated icon to a political embarrassment. Beijing was desperate to get rid of her.
She remembers a tall American from the U.S. embassy striding into the room at the airport. “Do you want to come to America?” he asked. Tears still well up in her eyes as she recounts the scene.
Just before she boarded the plane, a Chinese official shouted to the man from the embassy, “Tell her not to talk about politics in America or her children and business are finished.”
“America is a democracy; she can say what she wants.” he shouted back.
“That was like being born again,” Ms. Kadeer says now, a year later in her office in Washington, D.C. “I’m lucky to be alive for the things I said in East Turkistan–people were executed for committing lesser political crimes than me, for saying less than me,” she states matter-of-factly. “But I survived, and I have to do what I can to bring about democracy and human rights for the Uyghur people.”
It’s been a turbulent year in America for Rebiya Kadeer, and she has yet another reason to be thankful she’s still alive. She and her assistant were in a bizarre hit-and-run accident in Virginia in early January, an accident still under investigation. She still has to wear a back-brace, having fractured several vertebrae and trapped some arteries in her neck.
In her first year of freedom, she has started her own organization–the International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation (which I work for)–and has been on speaking tours around Europe and America, as well as a regular visitor to the Hill, testifying to Congress and the human-rights caucus.
The Uyghur community in America–concentrated in the D.C. and Virginia area–have dug deep to support her, aware that her profile and her release are possibly the most significant and encouraging events to have befallen the world’s estimated 20 million Uyghurs in decades.
Her current project is compiling as much information as she can on political prisoners in East Turkistan. She hopes the information will be useful in bringing the world’s attention to the Uyghur people and the catalogue of human rights abuses being perpetrated against them.
Naturally, Beijing bristles at the mere mention of Rebiya Kadeer’s name and, in an apparent attempt to smear her, has publicly accused her of plotting terrorist attacks against Chinese targets in East Turkistan. Naturally, they neglected to provide a shred of evidence.
True to their word, the Chinese authorities are in the process of making sure her business is indeed “finished,” confiscating her corporation’s assets and levying fines in a manner it that could be called arbitrary only with great charity.
As for her five adult children still in East Turkistan? “I am their mother; of course I am worried for them–I know very well what the Chinese government is capable of doing. And also, they are Uyghurs. I know too what the Chinese government does to Uyghurs.”
She admits the accident and the back-brace have slowed her down, but there is nothing of the “victim” about Rebiya Kadeer. She insists the last thing she and the Uyghur people need is sympathy, and is working instead for support and understanding.
“It’s only been a year. Time is short for the Uyghur people, but we are working.”