Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur businesswoman and political leader, denied she was behind the protests that erupted Sunday.
Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur businesswoman and political leader, could barely contain her fury at Beijing’s characterization of her as the evil mastermind behind the deadly protests that erupted Sunday in her western Chinese homeland.
“I didn’t have anything to do with these protests, but I love my people and they love me,” she said by telephone on Monday from her office in Washington, D.C., speaking animatedly in her native tongue. “So the Chinese naturally try to blame me.”
In an outpouring of rage on Sunday, Uighurs, a Muslim group with Turkic origins, clashed with Han Chinese in Urumqi, the capital of the western region of Xinjiang. Han Chinese, who have long treated the region as a wilderness to be colonized, now account for close to half its residents, including a large majority in the capital.
“The protests are a reaction to China’s repressive policies in East Turkestan,” she said, using the name preferred by many Uighurs for the vast desert region that they once dominated.
In the four years since Ms. Kadeer, 62, was released to the United States from her prison cell in China, she has become the public face of an ethnic group that is little known in much of the world. Although her fame hardly approaches that of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, Ms. Kadeer has come to personify the Uighur cause, and that status may only grow with China’s denunciations.
Ms. Kadeer first gained fame as an astute businesswoman and then a favored example of China’s claims of multiethnic harmony. She built an empire of trading companies and a department store and was even appointed to China’s national legislative body. But Communist Party leaders became suspicious of her loyalties in the late 1990s. She was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to eight years for betraying state secrets.
Under pressure from the United States and international organizations, she was released to exile in March 2005. She was soon elected president of two exile groups, the Uighur American Association, which represents the 1,000 or so Uighurs in the United States, and the World Uighur Congress, an umbrella for 47 groups worldwide, with headquarters in Munich.
Both groups receive much of their funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, a bipartisan organization created and financed by the United States Congress that promotes democracy worldwide. They engage in research and advocacy on human rights issues that affect the Uighur people.
Although the Chinese government has accused Ms. Kadeer and her groups of abetting terrorism, the organizations say they reject ties to violence or Islamic extremism. They call for democracy and “self-determination” for the Uighurs, side-stepping the explosive issue of independence.
President George W. Bush met with Ms. Kadeer more than once and publicly lauded her as an apostle of freedom.
The World Uighur Congress had sponsored demonstrations outside Chinese embassies in several European cities last week to protest the killings of Uighur workers in Guangdong Province in late June, said Dolkun Isa, the group’s secretary general, by telephone from Munich. Beijing officials singled out the group along with Ms. Kadeer as a culprit. Some Uighurs inside China might have been inspired by those protests, Mr. Isa said.
Still, the exiles and other human rights advocates were aware that tensions inside Xinjiang were rising. In addition to the Guangdong killings, many Uighurs have bristled at a steady tightening of religious constraints, including a ban on prayer at weddings, said Sophie Richardson, Asian advocacy director in Washington for Human Rights Watch. Mr. Isa said that some Uighur bloggers in Xinjiang last week had called for protests over what they saw as a weak official response to the Guangdong killings.
At a news conference in Washington on Monday, Ms. Kadeer explained a telephone call that Chinese officials said was evidence of her role in the demonstrations. She said that when she heard on Saturday that protests were planned, she called one of her brothers in Urumqi and told him to stay home. “I did not organize the protests or call on people to demonstrate,” she said. “A call to my brother doesn’t mean I organized the whole event.”
She added that while the groups she leads condemn the Chinese government’s excessive use of force, “we also condemn in no uncertain terms the violent actions of some of the Uighur demonstrators.”
Andrea Fuller contributed reporting from Washington.