BEIJING – China has sentenced a former education official and a former legal official in the northwestern region of Xinjiang to death with a two-year reprieve on charges including separatism and bribe taking.
Sattar Sawut and Shirzat Bawudun are the latest of many Xinjiang bureaucrats, almost all members of the Turkic Uyghur ethnicity native to the region, to be sentenced on national security charges in what China calls a campaign against “two-faced officials” who are seeking to undermine Chinese rule from within the system.
Such sentences are usually commuted to life in prison after two years with good behavior. Both men pleaded guilty and neither would file an appeal, said Wang Langtao, vice president of Xinjiang’s regional higher people’s court. National security cases are heard behind behind closed doors and it wasn’t exactly clear when the men had been tried or when their sentences had been handed down.
The court on Tuesday said Sattar Sawut, the the former head of the regional education department, “incorporated ethnic separatism, violence, terrorism, and religious extremism content into minority-language textbooks.”
“Sattar Sawut took advantage of compiling and publishing ethnic language textbooks for primary and secondary schools to split the country, starting in 2002. He instructed others to pick several people with separatist thoughts to join the textbook compilation team, the court found," the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing comments by Wang at a news conference.
Also sentenced were three other education officials and two textbook editors, according to a documentary released by state broadcaster CCTV last week. The three officials received life in prison, while the penalties imposed on the editors were not immediately clear.
The son of one of the editors sentenced called the charges “absurd," saying his father had avoided politics and pointing out that the textbooks were deemed fine by the Chinese government for over a decade.
“These textbooks were sanctioned by the state,” said Kamaltürk Yalqun, son of imprisoned editor Yalqun Rozi. “China is trying to erase history and write a new narrative."
Xinhua reported that Shirzat Bawudun, the former head of the Xinjiang regional justice department, was convicted of “splitting the country" for having colluded with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and having “offered help to separatists and religious extremists, and collaborated with overseas separatist forces." The ETIM is listed as a terrorist group by the United Nations, although many experts question whether it exists in operational form.
Shirzat Bawudun met with ETIM representatives and encouraged others to join the group, Wang said. He also “carried out illegal religious activities at his daughter’s wedding" and accepted bribes totaling 11.12 million yuan ($1.7 million), Wang said.
Following terror attacks that killed thousands, China swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other largely Muslim minorities into camps, prisons, and other detention facilities where they are told to denounce Islam and traditional culture, learn Mandarin Chinese and swear fealty to the ruling Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping.
That crackdown has been accompanied by the arrests of leading Uyghur academics and other public figures, as well as the destruction of mosques and the gradual phasing-out of Uyghur language instruction in a campaign of forced assimilation that many independent experts call a “cultural genocide."
China denies any abuses, saying the centers were aimed at teaching job skills and deradicalizing those influenced by anti-Chinese jihadi teachings. It says its policies have prevented any new terrorist attacks taking place for more than four years.
Beijing has also vociferously attacked claims of forced labor in factories and cotton fields and encouraged an unofficial public boycott of foreign companies that have spoken out on the matter. It calls U.S. sanctions against officials associated with persecution in Xinjiang a former of political persecution that will have no effect on government policy.
The court said textbooks approved by Sattar Sawut were used for 13 years, bringing “grave consequences." It said the 2003 and 2009 editions of the textbooks contained 84 passages preaching ethnic separatism, violence, terrorism and religious extremism and that several people were inspired by the books to participate in a bloody anti-government riot in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009.
Kamaltürk Yalqun, the son of one of the detained textbook editors, said the passages highlighted by the government were about old historical tales and figures that had nothing to do with terrorism. The real aim of sentencing Sattar Sawut and the editors, he said, is cultural destruction and assimilation.
“Because these textbooks are rich in Uyghur culture, China targeted them," Yalqun said. "They’re moving toward the direction of eliminating Uyghur language education and culture altogether."