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Uyghur film-maker claims he was tortured in China

Ikram Nurmehmet, a director known for his Uyghur protagonists, is facing charges related to ‘separatism’ and ‘terrorism’

Ikram Nurmehmet says he was held in a dark room and tortured for 20 days. Photograph: handout

Jessie Lau

November 8, 2023

A Uyghur film-maker has alleged he was tortured and forced to give a false confession during detention in Xinjiang province.

Ikram Nurmehmet, 32, appeared on trial at Ürümqi people’s intermediary court on 27 October and is accused of organising “terrorist” activities and participating in an “East Turkestan separatist” group, sources close to him told the Guardian.

Chinese authorities blame the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which once advocated independence in Xinjiang, for a series of terrorist attacks in the late 1990s and see similar groups as a separatist threat. Nurmehmet denied the allegations and no verdict was announced.

Known for portraying Uyghur protagonists in his work, Nurmehmet spent six years studying film-making in Turkey, which his supporters said made him a target of state scrutiny.

“I was held in a dark room for 20 days and physically tortured,” Nurmehmet reportedly said during the trial, adding that he had been made to give false confessions under duress while in detention. “I never joined any terrorist group or any political activities while I was in Turkey,” he said.

The trial was attended by Nurmehmet’s wife, mother and father, who have not been able to meet him since he was arrested at his home in Beijing and flown to Xinjiang in May.

Nurmehmet has been denied his choice of legal counsel and is being represented by a state-appointed lawyer, according to sources close to him. The lawyer told family members to expect a sentence of more than eight years in prison, and that the verdict may be announced any time from “a week or years” later.

“I kept feeling that he can be released suddenly. It’s always in my mind,” a source close to him told the Guardian. “That’s why I was so disappointed to hear that he [might face] at least eight years in prison.”

Maya Wang, an associate director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called the use of torture “routine” in cases where the accused is facing political charges, especially in Xinjiang. While Chinese law has an exclusionary clause stipulating that any confessions extracted under torture should be excluded in trial, the rule “does not actually function in practice”, she said.

Under Chinese law, the term “terrorism” has a broad definition that can cover anything from producing a politically sensitive film to meeting any overseas Uyghur or human rights activist (who are all considered terrorists by the Chinese state), according to William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

In politically sensitive cases where the state would want to control the outcome, authorities will frequently deny families the right to appoint their own legal counsel, Nee added.

Nurmehmet’s supporters are working on submitting a petition to the UN’s working group on arbitrary detention to request more information and continue advocating on his behalf.

In the past year, the working group has issued opinions on three cases involving Uyghurs, all of whom were deemed to be victims of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance under international law.

Peter Irwin, an associate director for research and advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said the persecution of Uyghur intellectuals and cultural elites may be more widespread than reported cases suggested. In Nurmehmet’s case, it is difficult to know whether he was targeted for having studied in Turkey or for his status as a cultural figure, he said.

“There are a lot of people being sentenced who went to Turkey. In some ways, what this film-maker was doing through his work – the humanisation of Uyghurs and [facilitating] communication between Uyghurs and Chinese people – I think the government is suspicious and worries about this kind of stuff.”

The Chinese state launched its Strike Hard anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang in 2014, after several terrorist attacks reportedly orchestrated by Uyghur separatists. An estimated half a million people are believed to have been imprisoned during a crackdown that escalated in 2017.

More than 300 intellectuals and members of its cultural elites are currently held in some form of extralegal detention after having disappeared between 2016 and 2021, according to a database by the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

© 2023 The Guardian


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