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The jailed folk singer at the front line of the Uighur struggle

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16.03.2019

Last August, a United Nations anti-discrimination panel shocked the world by reporting that up to one million members of the Uighur community - a Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority in China - were forced into internment camps in the country's western Xinjiang region.

The revelation prompted some countries, including Canada, France, Germany and the United States, to urge Beijing to shut down the camps, and to respect freedom of religion, expression and association. As international media organisations and human rights groups published further reports detailing the horrific abuse Uighurs are being subjected to at the hands of Chinese authorities, the US even toyed with the idea of imposing economic penalties on China. However, economic and political interests triumphed as usual, the world's attention moved on, and the global community once again failed to take any constructive action to end the suffering of Uighurs.

In absence of a credible retaliatory threat, Chinese authorities brusquely rebuffed the criticisms of the state's treatment of the Turkic Muslim group and even defended their actions saying their efforts have been "completely in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism".

As an Uighur activist living in exile, I was shocked neither by China's shameless denial and justifications nor by the world's inaction. Activists like me have been trying to bring the plight of Uighurs (as well as other Turkic Muslim peoples living in the region like the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Uzbecs and Tatars) to the world's attention for decades, with little success. For years, neither reports by respected NGOs nor testimonies by Uighurs themselves managed to convince world leaders to hold China to account. Even the latest UN report resulted in nothing more than a series of meaningless statements - China did not take a single step back or show any remorse for the millions of lives it ruined with its aggressive Sinification policies.

But last month something surprising happened.

The news that a popular Uighur folk poet and musician, Abdurehim Heyit, had died in a detention camp in China went viral on Turkish social media. The reaction of nationalist Turks, who consider the celebrated poet a "Turkic treasure", was so strong that Turkey's government felt the need to issue a strongly worded statement condemning China's treatment of Uighurs.

Ankara's statement in itself was a welcome development for the Uighur community - fearing economic and political retaliation, most Muslim-majority nations had previously refrained from strongly criticizing China on this issue.

However, what followed the statement was even more important.

China swiftly denied Heyit has been killed and even released a video appearing to show the Uighur musician. In the 25-second video dated February 10, Heyit states that he is "in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating national laws" and adds that he is in "good........

© Al Jazeera