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Why a Uyghur Journalist Was Sentenced 15 Years

July 28 | 22 Comments

On July 23rd, 2010, a Uyghur journalist, activist and blogger named Gheyret Niyaz (a.k.a. Heyrat Niyaz, 海莱特·尼亚孜) was sentenced to 15 years in prison.  His crime, according to many reports, was “endangering state security” by conducting an interview with a Hong Kong newspaper shortly after the Urumqi riots of 2009. He played no role in the actual riots.

Mainstream media has focused its stories on the harsh 15-yr sentence handed down by the Chinese court, but they tend to overlook the details surrounding the accusations made against this prominent Uyghur and exactly why he was convicted.

Who is Gheyret Niyaz? And what exactly did he say in that interview to merit 15 years in prison?

Who is Gheyret Niyaz?

Gheyret Niyaz (a.k.a. Heyrat Niyaz, 海莱特·尼亚孜)

Gheyret Niyaz is a Uyghur journalist who has lived most of his life in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, with the exception of a 4-year period of university studies in Beijing (Minzu University).

He had worked previously as a senior reporter for the Xinjiang Economic News and was an editor/administrator for the popular Mandarin-language Uyghur website (now no longer in existence).

What’s most surprising about this particular Uyghur is that Gheyret Niyaz, unlike many of his peers, is known for his generally supportive views of the Chinese government.

He has never been accused of participating in the riots although he was in Urumqi at the time “…on Xinhua Nanlu watching as rioter smashed and looted”.

So why in the world would he be sentenced to 15 years in prison?

The Punishable Interview

A couple weeks following the Urumqi riots an interview was published on Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly) that China authorities believed crossed the line from journalism to criminal activity.

Although people in Xinjiang, including myself, were not able to read this interview at the time due to government-imposed internet restrictions, a translation was soon posted online detailing the discussion between the Hong Kong reporter and Gheyret Niyaz.

In this interview Gheyret explains his predictions prior to July that something was going to happen and how he had tried to warn the authorities:

After the incident in Shaoguan, Guangdong, I felt that something big would happen, that blood would flow…I called a friend of mine in the government and said, “Something is going to happen tomorrow. You should take some measures”…In fact, I was not even the first person to warn the relevant government agencies on July 4. Just after 6 p.m. on July 4 another person had provided a warning.

Just who exactly this other person was that provided a warning is never revealed, but his point is clear: there were serious red flags prior to July 5th. Although these statements certainly don’t reflect well on the government, it’s hardly worth 15 years in prison.

Later in the interview Gheyret expressed another feeling that has been shared by many people throughout Xinjiang, both Uyghur and Han:

Ethnic relations in Xinjiang really became more tense over the past 20 years or so. After taking office, Party Secretary Wang Lequan adopted a high-handed posture that would not allow for any ethnic sentiment among minority populations…[Wang] overemphasized and exacerbated the anti-separatist issue.

Wang has since been replaced by new Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian, but it certainly had nothing to do with pressure from this interview.

Article 111 of the China Criminal Code

Although details of his sentence are difficult to nail down, it’s likely that Gheyret Niyaz was convicted under Article 111 of the China Criminal Code. This section of Chinese law states:

Whoever steals, secretly gathers, purchases, or illegally provides state secrets or intelligence…is to be sentenced from not less than five years to not more than 10 years of fixed-term imprisonment; when circumstances are particularly serious, he is to be sentenced to not less than 10 years of fixed- term imprisonment, or life sentence; and when circumstances are relatively minor, he is to be sentenced to not more than five years of fixed-term imprisonment, criminal detention, control, or deprivation of political rights. (emphasis mine)

In other words, this 15 year sentence signifies that the Chinese judicial system sees this interview as an offense of “particularly serious” nature.

Many organizations have appealed to China on Gheyret’s behalf, including the WUC (World Uyghur Congress) – which is a bit ironic considering one of his comments during last year’s interview.

When asked “How do local Uyghur intellectuals view [the president of the WUC]?” Gheyret responded:

They’re not interested. [She] basically has no ideas.

Why the Harsh Sentence?

If you remember, late last year another Uyghur named Alimjan Yimit was convicted under the same Article 111 for a 15 year sentence.  In 2008 a man in Turpan named Ekberjan Jamal was sentenced to 10 years for passing on audio clips of a a protest to friends outside the country.

Now Gheyret Niyaz can be added to the list of those receiving harsh sentences for seemingly minor crimes.

I speculate that such sentences are meant to discourage all Uyghur from conducting interviews with media, even those as harmless as the one above. If that’s the case, it’s working. Every journalist I speak to who has returned from a trip to Xinjiang tells stories about Uyghur interviewees who don’t show up, refuse to answer questions, or don’t even agree to talk at all.

As long as China feels defensive about its position in Xinjiang – and that might be for quite a while – the liberal use of Article 111 will continue to scare all residents within the province.

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. Great work, as always. Interesting story and sad series of events. I definitely think this stuff is done to send messages.And, understandably, it’s effective. Keep reporting it like it actually is.

  2. If you thought that was bad, check out this news:

    Sentencing all Uyghur webmasters of note to prison sentences is really a black mark on China. I really want to understand the Chinese govt. perspective on xinjiang policy but news like this makes me very sad and wonder if they are even capable of understanding the message they are sending to people of all ethnicities in xinjiang. I guess next time there won’t be any one to warn them about whats coming…..

  3. Good work, Josh. But to some extent you miss one point.
    The question is: Did Uyghurs dare to talk to journalist freely before 7/5? No. They never did. So your argument that the Gov wanted to scare them is not sufficient.

    Here is the local version. He was imprisoned not because he was interviewed by someone outside China, but stepping on a political land mine. Many people remember he said “I warned them many times, but they didn’t listen.” This apparently implies that the regional leadership is incapable. In the time that the Gov hastily accuses [exiled Uyghur leader] as the mastermind but failed to produce any convincing evidence, Niyaz’s claim sounds more threatening, especially to those who fear the Party discipline from Beijing. They have to silence him not because he is a dissident. He never was. They threw him in jail because his comment may jeopardize their political career.

    And why Niyaz have said those things? As a veteran journalist, he knows many among the regional leadership. He always boasts “I had a drink with this, or I had dinner with that.” He thought they were good friends, but never expected politics is this ugly.

    Josh on July 29th, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    Good point, although I would argue that before 7.5 Uyghur people would have been more willing to talk, albeit behind closed doors. Now they know that if their name is connected to a foreign press report there is a possibility to spend over a decade behind bars.

    I do agree with you that much of this had to do with face. Niyaz was basically saying that the authorities didn’t listen to him when he was right. I also think they didn’t like what he said because it went against the official party line. They say the WUC and outside forces were the instigators, Niyaz says that’s a bunch of hogwash.

    Regardless, the point is that he wasn’t just punished for this interview, he was severely punished. This was done to make a point to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, I believe.

    Urumqi on July 30th, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Well, this sentence does have that chilling effect, but I believe that is more for intellectuals because Niyaz is not a household name among common folks.

    Many Uyghurs don’t want to talk also because of the bad timing. Foreign media need one or two more years to have people open their mouths. This is so common that even Hans don’t want to talk to anyone, especially journalists. If they have tried Hans, they would know.

  4. Josh:
    You would do the same to other people (like me) you do not agree with.


    Josh on August 3rd, 2010 at 10:22 am

    No Frank. Really, I wouldn’t. I don’t approve most of your comments because they’re not worth my – or any other reader’s – time.

    But since we’re on a roll here, why don’t you give me a good reason why 15 years is a fair sentence. And please, a real answer would be preferred over petty argument (“well, you would do the same…”)

  5. Not many people enjoy those who do not agree with them. They all try to find a way to silence those disagreements.

    You removed many of my comments because you “do not approve” them. Some Chinese government officials are just like you — Josh, choose to jail Gheyret Niyaz’s to silence him too.

    The so called fair sentence is nothing but western hypocrisy.
    The fair sentence never existed. Colored people are sentenced much easier and longer in USA. Mexicans were jailed simply because they returned their ancestry land of Arizona. Etc, etc. unfair sentences happened every day.

    Westerners do not voice their concerns about those unfair sentences much. Do they? Did you?

    I will keep posting to your blog. If other readers not reading them, they should know you do not have tolerances of disagreement also.

    Josh on August 5th, 2010 at 5:18 am

    I have to say that making the comparison between me not approving your comments and a court sentencing a man to 15 years in prison is absolutely stupid. Unlike Niyaz, you have the option to leave and not leave any other comments if you so desire.

    More importantly, you did it again, Frank. Because you don’t have a good answer, you avoid my question altogether. I asked you: “Give me a good reason why 15 years is a fair sentence”. Why can’t you do it?

  6. The good reason to sentence him 15 years is to keep him quiet. Get it?

    There is never a “fair” sentence existed. Since you keep question me like those Let those who never sinned cast their stones.

    Josh on August 5th, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    So in other words, if I sentenced you to 15 years just because I didn’t like you’re comments, you’d be ok with that.

    Frank, your hatred has caused you to think irrationally. 15 years? It takes a person motivated by self-preservation to hand down such a sentence, but it takes someone without any sense of humanity or decency to whole-heartedly agree with it.

    Thanks for proving me right, though, Frank. I tried to give you a chance, but allowing your comments past the spam filter has wasted 15 minutes of my life.

  7. It’s a crying shame that the CCP has not updated its criminal code. This sentence is another scandal involving the CCP’s use of law as a tool to protect its members rather than a system whereby society can actually live in “harmony”.

    Josh on August 5th, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    I agree. The wording here is just too open to interpretation.

  8. There is no “fair” sentence. The recipient is always NOT OK with the sentence.

    Do you think those Mexicans are OK for them to be shackled in their ancestry country of Arizona?

    If hatred made me think irrationally, do you think the white people’s hatred of colored people make them think irrationally also?

    Do you think white people are without any sense of humanity or decency when they enslaving blacks, killing Indians, and shackled Mexicans today?

    Since you are the few without sin (or shame of sin), I apologize for wasting 15 minutes of your holy unemployed life.

    Mary Magdalene would be killed by you in front of Jesus Christ. Wouldn’t she?

    Those who pass the easy judgment on others irritate me. That is why I kept visiting your site, holding a mirror for you.

    Josh on August 6th, 2010 at 3:44 am

    Good grief, Frank. Of course the recipient doesn’t like the sentence. I don’t care what the recipient thinks is fair – and obviously you don’t either. In order for a justice system to truly work, however, a standard must be set by which to judge “fair” or “unfair”. It has to be there. That’s why China, the US, and most every other country have what’s called a criminal code. Agreed?

    You seem like a smart man, Frank, but you have a weird blind allegiance to…something…and your arguments are juvenile. I can tell this because instead of debating the actual issue with me, you instead decide to attack me – a person you’ve never met. You’re effectively making noise, but in the end you’re not accomplishing anything.

    Believe it or not, I’m actually trying to accomplish something here. This article was written to clarify why exactly this man was incarcerated. It is an informative article, not an op-ed. I have not criticized or thrown any proverbial stones despite your interpretation. I have only given people the tools by which to judge for themselves the “fairness”. I outlined what he has done and what Chinese law he was likely convicted under.

    I am a man who will always be in need of a mirror on my life, but thankfully I have friends who are much more capable to take that mantle than you. I hereby relinquish you of your “mirror duties”.

    verns on August 14th, 2010 at 11:30 am

    nice work, Josh…we’re proud of you!

  9. Gheyret Niyaz’s sentence is really bizarre. He was in no way a strong critic of the government. There is either something we don’t know (or the government doesn’t want to disclose) or this is just another insane act carried out by CCP.

  10. What would you do to that person who is “without any sense of humanity or decency”. Wouldn’t you want to lock him (or me) up for 15 years? So are Chinese officials. They are just like you. The difference is they have the power to do so. However, I agree with you they should follow the Chinese code of law.

    I think we do not have enough information to judge if the sentence is meeting the Chinese law or not.

    I am sure even if the sentence is following the Chinese law, you would not think it is fair. Because what it seemed fair to Chinese, may not seemed fair to westerners. Actually, regardless what Chinese people do, westerners will always find something to complain.