CHICAGO—Uyghur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, freed from a Chinese jail in an apparent deal with Washington, arrived here from Beijing late Thursday, rejoicing at her unexpected release and vowing to work "for the entire Uyghur nation."
"From this time on, I am free," Kadeer, looking healthy but tired, told RFA's Uyghur-language service, speaking in her first interview since Chinese authorities handed her over to U.S. officials in Beijing on March 14, a year and a half before her expected release.
"I can talk to anybody I want, I can see anyone I want, I can walk on the street with bigger steps. I can hug my relatives. I can kiss my children," she said.
"I can smile at my people. I can work for my people, and I can work for the entire Uyghur nation. I can shout out 'Greetings' to my people. For the rest of my life, I will create my own history."
"I got on the plane and asked myself, 'am I free?' and then I shouted out 'I am free!... I was very surprised when I heard I was being released. When they told me I was free I couldn’t believe my ears—right now I am overwhelmed and excited, and I cannot express myself."
Kadeer was raised in poverty but later became a successful entrepreneur, held up as a model of Uyghur success by the Chinese authorities. She received an eight-year sentence in 2000 for sending newspaper clippings overseas. She was convicted in a secret trial of endangering national security.
For the rest of my life, I will create my own history.
The Uyghurs are a distinct, Turkic-speaking ethnic group whose homeland enjoyed a brief period of autonomy as East Turkestan in the late 1940s, but who have lived under Chinese rule since 1949.
"Thanks to the American government, American people, they freed me, and I landed back on Earth," she said. "Two days ago, the Chinese government allowed my children in Urumqi to visit me for about 10 minutes but didn't tell them I would be released. They didn't tell them or me I was going to America."
In a subsequent interview, Kadeer vowed to return to Xinjiang, and to work for the benefit of the Uyghur people.
“The wishes of thousand and millions people saved me from harsh reality," Kadeer said. "I don’t belong to myself—I belong to them, to my people. Now I will be a medicine to cure my people’s illnesses, a handkerchief for their tears, an umbrella to protect them from the rain.”
In China, she said, “when I faced the harshest reality, when I entered the most dangerous place, I thought, ‘I will not die here, no matter how dangerous it is. I will not disappear from here, no matter how harsh a reality I face. I will not become crazy, because I do not belong to myself.”
“I will help illiterate children become literate. I will be a parent for orphans. I will work for my people’s rights,” she said. “I don’t know what I am capable of, but I will use the power given to me by Almighty God to [help] my people, [to help] the next generation.”
"And then the Chinese Foreign Ministry handed me over to the U.S. State Department in Beijing. Nobody in the Uyghur region knew I was free and leaving. I want RFA's Uyghur service to say goodbye to my people and my homeland for me," she said.
"This is a victory for Uyghur rights," Kadeer's husband, Sidik Haji Rouzi told RFA's Uyghur service. "The Uyghur people have a right to choose. The Uyghur people have the right to determine their own future," Rouzi said.
U.S. officials confirmed on the day of Kadeer's release that Washington has now dropped plans to table a human rights resolution against China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva this year.
Overseas rights groups welcomed the news, but expressed concern at the decision to drop the U.N. resolution.
"Obviously, we are delighted," Washington-based Amnesty International spokesman T. Kumar told RFA. He urged Rice, who arrives in China at the weekend, to press China to apologize to Kadeer.
Rebiya's release is a positive sign, and we welcome this decision by the Chinese government. However, there are thousands of Uyghurs still in prison for political reasons.
"We are still concerned that the U.S. decided to drop the resolution condeming China at the U.N.," Kumar said. "We are curious to see if Secretary Rice will push [China] on other human rights-related topics."
Meanwhile, exiled Uyghur groups, many of which support an independent Uyghur state, were rejoicing at the news.
"The release of Rebiya Kadeer is great news not only for me, it is great news for Uyghurs in the motherland of East Turkestan, and for Uyghurs in exile," Erkin Alptekin, chairman of the World Uyghur Congress, told RFA.
"It is a great victory for democracy, and it is a great victory for the Uyghur people," he said.
Others were cautiously optimistic, pointing to a worsening overall situation for Uyghurs under Chinese rule, particularly under the aegis of President Bush's war on terror.
"The Chinese government's oppression of the Uyghur people is increasing by the day," Uyghur American Association president Nury Turkel told RFA's Mandarin service. "Particularly since 9/11, the political oppression has been even more severe."
Beijing said it had executed 50 Uyghurs for separatism in the first nine months of 2004, he added.
"Rebiya's release is a positive sign, and we welcome this decision by the Chinese government. However, there are thousands of Uyghurs still in prison for political reasons."
This is fantastic news and something we have been hoping for.
Arne Lynngard, chairman of the board of the Norway-based Rafto Foundation, which has lobbied for her release, was effusive. "This is fantastic news and something we have been hoping for," he told RFA in a telephone interview from Norway. "It shows how much it helps for NGOs and political pressure to work together."
The foundation awarded its prestigious Professor Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for 2004 to Kadeer.
A former State Department official told RFA that Kadeer could now play an important role as a focal point for exiled Uyghur groups.
"There's a lot she can do from outside. There's no Dalai Lama for the Uyghurs," Lorne Craner, president of the non-profit International Republican Institute, told RFA. While Kadeer was not a comparable figure to the Dalai Lama, she was still a compelling focal point, Craner said.
Craner said he had worked on Kadeer's case during his time as assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor at the State Department.
"From what I had read and heard, I was really impressed with her as a person—and that she was held up as an example and then for the flimsiest of reasons she was thrown in jail.”
We are still concerned that the U.S. decided to drop the resolution condeming China at the U.N. We are curious to see if Secretary Rice will push China on other human rights-related topics.
He said the Bush administration had sought to take a different approach to China's human rights record, pressing harder for systemic change than for the release of individual dissidents.
"We were happy one year at State because 10 dissidents got out of China, and then we realized there were 6,000 more," Craner told RFA.
Kadeer, who arrived in the U.S. late Thursday, was to join her husband and five of her children already living in the United States, her Virginia-based daughter Akida Rouzi said.
Kadeer’s freedom also precedes talks in Brussels between China and the European Union on lifting a 15-year-old arms embargo imposed after the bloody crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Washington wants the embargo to remain in force.
Her release is widely seen as a gesture to Rice, who arrives in Beijing this weekend on an official visit. John Kamm, a U.S. businessman-turned-human rights activist who helped to arrange the release, told the Associated Press that he had been “working intensely” with official contacts to arrange Kadeer's release ahead of Rice's China trip.
China often times the release of prominent prisoners to coincide with visits by foreign officials.
Before her arrest, Kadeer owned a department store in the northwestern city of Urumqi, ran a charity that helped Muslim women start businesses, and attended a U.N. conference on women in Beijing in 1995.
According to the State Department's 2004 Human Rights report, Uyghurs continued to be sentenced to long prison terms and sometimes executed last year on charges of separatism. China said it prosecuted more than 3,000 cases in Xinjiang and held mass sentencing rallies attended by more than 300,000 persons during its "Strike Hard" campaign, which officially ended in 2003.
Original reporting by RFA's Uyghur service. Director: Dolkun Kamberi. Additional reporting and editing by Sarah Jackson-Han. English Web producer: Luisetta Mudie