Earlier this year, Uyghur activist and former Chinese Government official, Gulmire Imin, was sentenced to life in prison by a Chinese court for “separatist” offenses.
The charges were in connection with the July 2009 uprising in the city of Urumqi which was sparked by ethnic violence against Uyghurs in another part of China. Imin’s husband Behtiyar Omer, 33, a former lawyer had left China six months before the July troubles.
Now living in Norway he tells RFA about his life as an exile, how he discovered his wife’s fate, his belief in her innocence, and his feelings of guilt and his hope for the future.
Omer had not heard from his wife for three months when news of her came from an unlikely source. He said he was watching a CCTV documentary on the uprising and there on the screen was his wife “wearing a prison uniform. I never imagined seeing her like this.”
The documentary “The July 5 Riot from start to finish” aired in October, 2009. It claimed Gulmire Imin was one of the organizers who attended planning meetings for the protests and it also accused her of leaking state secrets to Omer who was described as the secretary of the Norwegian Uyghur Association. The leaks were allegedly made in a series of phone calls from Imin to Omer on July 5.
Initially Omer was reluctant to comment on the claims because he was scared he could aggravate the Chinese authorities who in turn would take it out one his wife.
“At the beginning I did not respond to the documentary’s claims in order not to upset the Chinese Government.
“I did not want to put my wife at risk and was concerned that my seven year old child would be without his mother and his father.
But when he heard the severity of his wife’s prison sentence he decided felt he no longer had anything to lose.
“I was shocked when I heard she had been sentenced to life imprisonment.
“The silence and patience did not placate the authorities so I decided to speak out.
First of all he said the allegations of leaking state secrets were false.
“ She had never called me on July 5th, I called her and she told me where she was but how can that be leaking a state secret?
“I did not hold a position in any Uyghur Organization despite what the documentary said.
“On the contrary I was in a refugee camp … how I could pass on information to activists?
As for his wife’s role in the protests, Omer acknowledged that his wife took pride in her ethnic heritage and would likely help out at a low level on the day of what was planned as a peaceful and lawful event but he was certain she was not a central organizer.
He said in he week leading up to July 5 she was visiting her parents in Aksu so she was not in a position to be organizing a demonstration in Urumchi however it did not surprise him that she participated.
And he added it was likely she had a small local role given to her on the day of the protest because “she has the skills and ethnic pride to be of use at such a critical event.
“Probably she did some organization at a neighborhood level.
But even realizing his wife’s commitment to the Uyghur cause he advised her to go home on July 5.
But he said she was confident every thing would be fine and she told him: “Don’t worry. This is a legal demonstration, the announcement of demonstration is still on the internet, if the demonstration was illegal the government would have deleted it.”
This appears to be one of the key areas in which confusion arose. Protestors seeing the announcement posted on the web assumed it must be legal but that was not the view of the Chinese authorities.
So while it began as peaceful demonstration to protest a violent attack some weeks earlier against Uyghur migrant workers in far-off Guangdong province it ended in bloody clashes with the authorities. The official death toll was 200.
Omer said he understood the protestors’ belief that they were holding a legal demonstration but he also quickly realized that the Chinese authorities did not see it in that light and he was caught in a dilemma over his wife whom on one hand he wanted to be safe at home but on the other was doing the right thing.
“I clearly saw the demonstration had never been regarded as legal by the Chinese authorities so I was worried but I could not insist she leave it.
“It is not easy warning someone and saying they should go home especially your wife when she is taking a stand on a critical issue of justice like the Shaoguan Incident,” he said.
According to a witness at her trial, Gulmire Imin was born in Aksu city in 1978 and grew up there.
She graduated from the Chinese-Uyghur translation department of Xinjiang University in 2000 and began to work for the subdistrict committee in September 2000.
She had been praised and awarded many times by city and regional officials.
“She has outstanding organizing talents, and she was in charge of a subdistrict with a population of 40,000,” the witness said.
“But she was very outspoken, and she could not keep silent about the injustices she witnessed.”
But taking a stand for justice has also taken its toll on both husband and wife. Omer feels guilty he is free and his wife is in prison and he is also upset that he cannot even visit her.
“Let me be honest with you, some times I am jealous of those families with a husband in jail and his wife and child get to visit him once a year.”
“ It is difficult accepting that your wife was jailed for fighting for justice for her people while you were staying in a refugee camp abroad having escaped the very country where you wife is now in prison.
So having settled in Norway for the moment Omer has thrown himself into the Uyghur cause.
“Finally I decided to take up positions with overseas based Uyghur organizations. I had been silent while my wife was before the court and it changed nothing. On the contrary it seems she suffered an even more severe punishment,” he said.
“Now I’m a representative of Norway’s Uyghur community and an active member of World Uyghur Congress.”
“I now know my activities abroad will not change my wife’s fate; but I strongly believe that many young Uyghurs could learn from our family story and know how to respond and act towards the Chinese authorities at similar events.