She was a pioneering professor and ethnographer from the Uyghur ethnic group in far western China, who documented the religious and cultural traditions of her people. She was at the height of a career that the Chinese government had once recognized with prizes and research grants. But it wasn’t enough to keep her safe.
Rahile Dawut, who raised a generation of academics and scholars, disappeared in 2017, along with other prominent intellectuals and academics targeted by the Chinese government in its campaign to destroy Uyghur cultural identity. Details about her case remained shrouded in secrecy for years, leaving her family and friends wondering about her fate.
On Thursday, the Dui Hua Foundation, a group that campaigns on behalf of political prisoners in China, said it had seen a document written by a senior Chinese official stating that Dr. Rahile Dawut was sentenced to life in prison on charges of endangering national security.
“If the Chinese government strikes her, it is really an attack on the heart of Uyghur culture,” John Kamm, the group’s founder and chairman, said in a telephone interview. “It’s terrible.”
Mr. Kamm added that the official also wrote that Dr. Rahile Dawut had tried to appeal her sentence after she was first tried in 2018, but her appeal was rejected. The Chinese government has applied a sweeping definition of “endangering national security” to detain and often jail Uighurs deemed to oppose or even question official policies.
Her daughter, Akeda Pulati, who lives in Seattle, said the prospect of never seeing her mother again was deeply painful.
“I felt very angry and devastated,” she said when she heard the verdict, in a telephone interview, “even though I had been devastated for years.” She added: “I couldn’t accept the news when I heard it.”
Dr. Born in 1966 to a family of intellectuals in Urumqi, Rahile Dawut studied folklore at Beijing Normal University and was one of the first Uyghur women to earn a Ph.D. One version of her dissertation mapped Uyghur shrines known as mazars down to their coordinates, gaining fame among academics and travelers alike.
She then became a professor at Xinjiang University, the region’s most important university, and founded a folklore institute. Throughout her career, she has made meticulous recordings of Uyghur religious traditions and oral epic poetry, with a special focus on the role of women in cultural rituals.
“She realized how precarious, how fragile these traditions were and how they were always at risk of political eradication,” says Rachel Harris, professor of ethnomusicology at SOAS University of London, who taught Dr. Rahile has known Dawut for twenty years. . “So she was driven to document, and she was also driven to spread and transmit the understanding of these traditions.”
At Xinjiang University, Dr. Rahile Dawut was the focus of intellectual and social exchange, reaching out to anthropology departments in the United States and Britain to broaden her knowledge of interview techniques.
Her university office was the first place many foreign scientists went when they arrived to study the region, colleagues said. Her home in Urumqi was the center of many gatherings of local and visiting scholars. She was known for cooking polo, a Uyghur rice pilaf and even delivering soup to the dorms of sick students.
In the field, she taught students to not only take from people they interviewed, but also give back when possible, printing photos that she shared when she returned to the region. She was guided by the urgency to document customs before they became the target of political or religious ideologies, including movements in Islam that rejected local traditions.
Many of her subjects treated her with reverence, calling her “the teacher” and allowing her to document rituals that traditionally only men could attend. She was best known for her work on pilgrimages to shrines translated into English. Her database on dastan, Uighur oral epics, was nearly complete, a former colleague said.
Over the years, the Chinese had funded her research. She had met President Jiang Zemin in 2000 at a conference where she represented Uyghur scholars. And one of the last projects she worked on before she disappeared had received funding from the National Social Science Foundation of China. But it turned out to be the size and significance of her work that lured her into the trap.
When China established internment camps in 2017 to eradicate what it described as religious extremism in Xinjiang, authorities also began erasing signs of Uyghur heritage, destroying mosques and the rural religious sites that Dr. Rahile Dawut studied. Religious practitioners like those she interviewed in rural areas were rounded up.
They also came for her in December. More than a hundred Uyghur academics, intellectuals and writers disappeared into detention during that time.
Dr. Rahile Dawut is not the only Uyghur intellectual to receive a life sentence on charges of endangering national security. Ilham Tohti, an economist and professor who had criticized China’s policies on ethnic minorities, was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 in a trial largely seen as a public warning against challenging the Chinese government.
From 2017 to September last year, over half a million people in Xinjiang were prosecuted in a massive increase in the number of Uyghurs held in prisons, according to statistics collected by Human Rights Watch.
“By the time the current crisis broke out a few years later, in 2017, it seems that the party-state no longer made the decision to punish the few to scare the many, but to simply punish the many,” he said. Joshua L Freemana cultural historian who calls Dr. Rahile has known Dawut for twenty years and has translated her work.
He added that the secrecy surrounding the entire campaign of repression spoke to the authorities’ reluctance to admit guilt. “Those who commit this injustice are fully aware of the magnitude of the injustice,” he said. “Why else would this have to be kept secret?”
China’s State Council Information Bureau did not respond to a request for comment, and faxes to the Xinjiang government’s propaganda department were not returned.
Chris Buckley reported from Taipei, Taiwan.