Freed Chinese dissident determined to fight for Uighur minority

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Rebiya Kadeer, a top campaigner for the rights of China's Muslim Uighur minority, has vowed to fight for her people's freedom as she arrived in the United States following her release from nearly six years of detention in Beijing.

"I will keep on fighting for my people until my last breath," the 58-year-old mother of 11 told scores of exiled Uighurs and human rights advocates at the Washington National Airport in an emotional welcome late Thursday.

Looking exhausted after her 36-hour journey from Beijing enroute Chicago, Kadeer said in between sobs that her prison term was "her lowest point" in her life but "it has only made me more determined to fight for my beloved people whom I love very much."

Rebiya's weeping compatriots shouted her name and hugged and kissed her. They brought along bouquets of flowers and light blue flags depicting their dream independent state.

Kadeer, who ranks among the leading members of China's Uighur ethnic minority group in the largely Muslim autonomous Xinjiang Uighur region, was last year awarded the Rafto Prize, named after Norwegian professor Thorolf Rafto who spent most of his life fighting for human rights.

A former millionaire businesswoman, Kadeer has been the highest-profile Uyghur political prisoner and has become a symbol of the struggle of the eight million mainly Muslim Uighurs, said Nury Turkel, president of the Uyghur American Association.

The region has been autonomous since 1955, but continues to be the subject of major crackdowns by Chinese authorities.

Thousands of Uighurs are still languising behind bars and should be given unconditional freedom, said T. Kumar, Amnesty International's Washington-based advocacy director for Asia and Pacific.

Chinese authorities released Kadeer, who has a heart problem, on medical parole on Thursday just ahead of a weekend visit to Beijing by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites). They bundled her into a plane headed to the United States after allowing her to meet several of her children in Beijing, a family member said.

She was arrested in August 1999 while on her way to meet with a US congressional staff delegation. Chinese authorities charged her with "providing secret information to foreigners" and ordered her jailed for eight years after a secret trial.

"I now know that justice exists and I hope that everyone like me will be free one day, released from their prison cells and be happy with their loves ones," Kadeer said, hugging her eldest daughter, Akida Rouzi.

Sidik Rouzi, Kadeer's husband and himself once a political prisoner in China and now residing in the United States, was also at hand to greet his wife, who is believed to be suffering from high blood pressure.

"I hope everyone out there will keep fighting for our people," Kadeer said.

Just hours before the announcement of Kadeer's release in Beijing Thursday, the United States said in Geneva it would refrain from proposing a motion criticising China at this year's session of the UN Human Rights Commission.

A member of the US delegation said the decision was taken because "in the past year they have made some progress that we like."

Kadeer's release also comes ahead of talks in Brussels between China and the European Union (news - web sites) likely to focus on the lifting of a 15-year-old arms embargo.

The EU has demanded China do more to improve its human rights record before the ban is removed.

"This release is something we welcome, and there has been some other steps, but we remain concerned about the human rights situation in China," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

He denied that the United States -- which has pushed resolutions in Geneva slamming China for rights abuses every year since China's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy activists, except 2002 and 2003 -- was softening its stance.

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