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In China, a Uyghur scholar has been sentenced to life in prison

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

One of the most important scholars on Uyghur culture has been given a life prison sentence in China. Rahile Dawut is an expert on her culture's folklore and traditions. She's published internationally and worked with scholars from all over the world, often with Chinese government funding. So why is she deemed such a threat by China? For more, we're joined by NPR's international correspondent Emily Feng. Welcome to the program.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: What was Rahile Dawut charged with?

FENG: So she was charged with splittism (ph) - and this is a charge akin to secession or treason - as well as endangering national security. And she was actually put on trial five years ago in December 2018. This was after she basically just disappeared the year before. And it only later emerged that she and several of her graduate students from Xinjiang University's humanities college had been arrested. So this was years ago, but we're only finding out now about her sentence this month. Her sentence was confirmed by Dui Hua, a U.S. humanitarian foundation that advocates for political prisoners, and they said they saw a document written by a senior Chinese official that states Dr. Dawut had been sentenced to life in prison.

RASCOE: And how has the Uyghur community responded?

FENG: Well, the confirmation is devastating for her family, especially her daughter, Akida Pulat, who lives in Seattle. She'd feared the worst.

AKIDA PULAT: But this result is far beyond my imagination. Just imagine your mom will spend her life in prison for the rest of her life. That is an unbearable pain for the rest of my life as well.

FENG: Pulat says she last communicated with her mother over text shortly before she was arrested, but she hasn't been able to see her mother or talk to her at all since that arrest.

RASCOE: The U.S. State Department late last week issued a strong statement condemning the sentencing of the professor. Tell us more about the work she's known for and why the Chinese government believed it endangered national security.

FENG: Professor Dawut is a trailblazer. She is one of the first, if not the first, woman in China to get a Ph.D. in her field of Uyghur ethnography. She's best known for documenting the folklore and the religious customs of her people, the Uyghur people. And so for this, she would go to weddings. She would get to these cultural - she would go to these cultural get-togethers called meshreps in Uyghur to actually record and notate down the oral traditions and stories that her people had been telling for centuries. And no one had done this before. As part of her research, she also traveled to hundreds of shrines left by Uyghur pilgrims across the Xinjiang region for Sufi saints, and she documented these shrines before they crumbled to dust. And her work meant that she traveled in pretty grueling conditions sometimes. You know, Xinjiang is a big place. It has high altitude. It's about four times the size of California with mountains and deserts. But when I talked to Professor Dawut's colleagues from all over the world, it's really clear that she loved her work. And Akida, her daughter, says she went on one trip with her mother.

PULAT: I remember the condition of this trip is horrible, but my mother was really enjoy it. Like, I can see the spark in her eye when she talked to local people in the village.

FENG: But it's this kind of academic work that also made Rahile Dawut a target. Her work shows how the Uyghur people are a distinct people. They have their own culture. They have customs. They have heritage that is both tangible and intangible. And so she became an obstacle to the Chinese state when it wanted to both quash Uyghur identity and emphasize China's ethnic majority, the Han, instead.

RASCOE: That's NPR international correspondent Emily Feng. Thank you so much, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.