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Question: Where is it a crime for a mother to talk about her search for her missing son?

Answer: In China.

Today in Urumqi, capital of the region home to the ethnically Turkic Uyghur people, a court tried Patigul Ghulam in closed proceedings on allegations of leaking state secrets. The prosecution appears to stem from local officials’ fury that in April 2013 she spoke to Radio Free Asia about her search for her son, Imammemet Ali.

Uighur women grieve for men who they claim were taken away by Chinese auhtorities after the July 5-7, 2009 protests in Urumqi, China on July 7, 2009. © 2009 AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Ali was one of an unknown number of men and boys whom the government forcibly disappeared in Urumqi following the July 2009 protests there. It’s still not clear how those protests, which began peacefully, turned violent. Then and now, Chinese authorities have the duty to thoroughly investigate incidents of violence and fairly prosecute the perpetrators. But instead of launching an impartial investigation in accordance with domestic law and international standards, Chinese law enforcement agencies carried out a massive campaign of arbitrary arrests in the Uyghur areas of Urumqi, resulting in dozens – and possibly many more – of “disappearances.”

Patigul Ghulam says that on July 14, 2009, police took away her son – then about 25 years old – and despite repeated inquiries to local authorities, she has never been given information about his whereabouts or wellbeing. Since then she has been briefly detained at least twice, once in 2011 and again in 2013, on vague allegations of “incitement” or “involvement in illegal activities.”

Had the authorities provided information on the fate of those disappeared – an ongoing abuse that causes deep pain to the families of victims – and allowed regular access to those detained, harm would have been reduced. And had actions been taken to punish the officials responsible and to allow for the peaceful expression of grievances, regional tensions may have been eased.
But the prosecution of Patigul Ghulam – behind closed doors, for behavior protected by Chinese and international law, on charges that could result in a seven-year sentence – demonstrates once again Chinese authorities’ contempt for these most fundamental of human rights.


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