NEW YORK—The recent discovery that several prominent Uyghur scholars and writers have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment by the Chinese government is an outrageous abdication of the rule of law, and a clear demonstration of the government’s broad-scale attack on Uyghur intellectual life under the guise of preventing “separatism,” PEN America said today.

In late September, Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur service reported that it had received information that a political film purporting to show “dangerous separatists” was being shown to audiences in Xinjiang, western China. Within the film, prominent Uyghur writers and scholars Tashpolat Tiyip, Satar Sawut, and Yalqun Rozi appear. RFA has subsequently reported that Rozi has purportedly received a sentence of life imprisonment for “separatism,” and that Tiyip and Sawut both have purportedly received the death penalty, suspended for two years, under the same charge.

Tashpolat Tiyip is the former president of Xinjiang University, a major Chinese university first established in 1924. Satar Sawut is the former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau. Yalqun Rozi, a writer known for his writing on Islam and Uyghur identity, was a central figure of the 1980s-90s Islamic renaissance in Xinjiang. All three men disappeared from public life in 2017, with little-to-no public information regarding their whereabouts or charges against them.

“The fact that several prominent Uyghur intellectuals have disappeared only to reemerge months later, sentenced to death or to life imprisonment, tells you all you need to know about the state of free expression in Xinjiang today,” said Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “While very little is known about the cases against these three, it is abundantly clear that the government’s treatment of these writers and scholars is a travesty against the rule of law. Additionally, the lack of any public trial, along with draconian prison sentences, for these scholars can only be understood as yet another example of authorities’ efforts to abolish Uyghur intellectual life under the guise of ‘ending separatism.’”

PEN America has documented various other cases of Uyghur writers, intellectuals, and cultural figures, who have been targeted by the state, including Freedom to Write Award honoree and scholar Ilham Tohti, journalist Gheyret Niyaz, historian Tohti Tunyaz, and researcher and writer Rahile Dawut among others. PEN America additionally analyzed the digital rights situation in Xinjiang in its March 2018 report Forbidden Feeds, and has called the current situation in Xinjiang—where hundreds of thousands of people have been placed in “patriotic re-education camps”—”one of the greatest human rights catastrophes occurring today, with massive implications for the right to free expression.”


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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