The Uighur leader blamed by Beijing for instigating the riots that continue to roil China’s western Xinjiang province is calling on the U.N. to investigate the causes of the violence. Rebiya Kadeer suggests that an independent inquiry would find that the Chinese authorities provoked the riots when they brutally cracked down on a peaceful demonstration in Urumqi, the provincial capital.
For friend and foe alike, Kadeer has become the public face of the Uighur movement. A successful businesswoman and local leader, she was jailed by the Chinese authorities in 1999 on charges of betraying state secrets. After her prison term, she was exiled in 2005, and she now lives in the Washington area, where she leads the World Uyghur Congress. Pressure from the U.S. was instrumental in securing her release, and she has forged strong contacts on Capitol Hill. “To blame the civil disturbances and bloodshed on human-rights leader Rebiya Kadeer is ludicrous,” Representative Chris Smith, a senior member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “But it is typical of Chinese officials attempting to hide the government’s cruelty that in fact created the unrest by violating the fundamental human rights of its own citizens.”
Kadeer spoke with TIME’s Bobby Ghosh via a translator. Excerpts:
TIME: How do you respond to Chinese allegations that you were behind the demonstrations
Kadeer: I reject the Chinese accusations as false. I believe they are doing it to cover their own actions. The demonstrations started peacefully, and some [Uighurs] were even carrying Chinese flags. The Chinese government has already branded me as a separatist; they want to connect the demonstrators to me so they can punish them severely. Actually, I have nothing to do with the demonstrations.
What connections do you have to Urumqi at present
We don’t have any specific connection. What we’re doing here is educating the international community about the human rights of the Uighurs. We don’t have any people there, and we don’t have any connection there.
How do you feel about the reaction to the violence against Han Chinese
I don’t believe what the Chinese are saying, that the Uighurs are beating up Chinese. I don’t have any specific evidence. I know that it started out as a peaceful demonstration. There was a violent crackdown by the Chinese police and soldiers, and it turned into a riot. Of course, there was a fight.
How many people were beaten by Uighurs, I don’t know. I can’t comment about something I don’t know.
The Chinese are showing just their side of the story. They are only showing injured Chinese. But they are not showing any injured Uighur man or woman. The injured and dead Uighurs were not shown by Chinese TV.
We know that the Uighurs were sent to substandard and small hospitals.
The Uighurs resisted the violence of the Chinese government. They have the guns and the armored vehicles. The Uighurs don’t have any weapons in their hands, as we’ve seen from the TV images.
Are you worried that relations between Uighurs and Han Chinese have broken Are there any ways they can be improved
This unrest was caused by government policies. The government is instigating Chinese people against Uighurs. Because of government propaganda, the Chinese people have begun to hate Uighurs.
Uighur people have nothing against Chinese people.
One way of improving relations is that injured Uighurs should be treated, detained Uighurs should be released, and the government should bring to justice those who opened fire on the demonstrators.
The Uighur cause is a just cause. The government should stop branding the Uighurs as separatists and terrorists.
Have the events in Iran inspired the demonstrators in Urumqi
Probably there’s a connection, but I don’t see it. There’s been a simmering discontent among Uighurs about Chinese policies in East Turkistan [the Uighur name for the Chinese province of Xinjiang] for the past 60 years. And there’s been severe discrimination against Uighurs.
The demonstrations were sparked by the Chinese killing of Uighurs in a toy factory in Guangdong.
What will be your next steps
I will campaign to raise awareness in the free world. I will appeal to the White House, the European Parliament and the U.N. to condemn Chinese actions. I will ask the U.N. to appoint an independent inquiry into what has happened in Urumqi.
Are you concerned that your activism may endanger those who are demonstrating in Urumqi
I speak on behalf of justice. It’s not my voice but the government’s actions that have triggered these events.
Read a TIME article about the initial provincial clashes.
See the photo essay “China on the Wild Side.”