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Newspaper Slur Angers Uighurs

Kazak authorities come to defence of ethnic group attacked in media report.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Kazakstan’s sizeable Uighur population has been deeply shocked by a newspaper report branding them a “cunning people - separatists and terrorists”.


The article “Kazaks face a hidden threat” was published by Kazakhskaya Pravda at the beginning of the month, and controversy over its content shows no sign of abating.


Journalist Aliya Akhmetova – who is not a staff writer at the paper – wrote the piece which Uighur elders claim defames them by alleging that they are separatist, messy and lazy.


According to Akhmetova, illegal Uighur immigrants from eastern Turkmenistan and XUAR, the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous republic in China, plan to abuse the “kindness and open-heartedness” of the Kazak people to spread extremism.


The Uighurs – a Turkic Muslim people who have lived in the region for millennia – have a long history of being oppressed by the Chinese state, which is resisting all calls to allow XUAR full independence, and routinely tries to close down Uighur political groups outside its territory.


But one senior western diplomat, who did not want to be named, told IWPR that Chinese fears of separatist groups operating in Kazakstan were way off the mark. “There is not a single Uighur organisation, either in China or abroad, that would pose a threat to Beijing,” he said.


“The Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, really existed and was dangerous, but there are no such Uighur organisations.”


The Kazak interior ministry also expressed its shock at the article. "We do not consider Uighurs living in our country to be dangerous people. They are our citizens just like any other ethnic group,” said one official.


“The media should not plant seeds of hatred between people."


Kakharman Hojamberdi, one of the leaders of Kazakstan’s Uighurs, told IWPR that he believed pro-China forces in Kazakstan and the Chinese security services were behind the article.


“China is afraid that the Uighur diaspora might become more politically active, so they constantly try to control and discredit my people,” he said.


The Society for Uighur Culture of Kazakstan called a meeting of elders in Almaty’s House of Friendship to discuss the piece, consider the reasons for its publication and decide how to respond.


Society chief Farkhad Hasanov told IWPR that the publication of an anti-Uighur article in a Kazak outlet came to him as a shock.


“This is the first time in the years of Kazak independence that such an offending article about Uighurs is published,” said Hasanov, looking puzzled. “This is like a bolt from the blue.


“Why did this article appear? There is someone behind this, I think, people who dislike peace in Kazakstan. We will demand a retraction from the newspaper - or we’ll take it to court.”


Kazakhskaya Pravda originally backed the journalist and her article, refusing to denounce the opinions expressed, but later released a statement which appeared to back the very separatist groups it had criticised.


“This paper has repeatedly expressed support for the national liberation movement of Uighurs of Eastern Turkmenistan,” the statement read. “We continue to believe that an independent Uighur state serving as a buffer zone for Kazakstan in the east would be very beneficial for our country.”


Kazakstan is home to around 220,000 Uighurs, making it the largest Uighur diaspora community outside China, which is home to roughly fifteen million members of the ethnic group.


While Astana defended the ethnic group in the face of Akhmetova claims, Hojamberdi believes officials would rather maintain good relations with Beijing – both are members of the Shanghai Organisation for Cooperation - than stand up for Uighur rights.


“Kazakstan’s partnership with China is becoming more important than human rights,” he said. “Kazakstan refuses to admit refugees from China, but refugees from Afghanistan are allowed to enter. In the late Nineties it handed several Uighurs [who tried to enter the republic] back to the Chinese authorities - who then shot them.”


China actively pursues a policy of eliminating Uighur organisations abroad, and assimilating Uighurs within XUAR.


The latest execution of an Uighur on charges of separatism occurred as recently as November 2003, when Sher Ali, who took part in a youth demonstration in Ghulja in February 1997, was shot.


Galima Bukharbaeva is an IWPR staff member.


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