It could have been me

Bodyshop founder Anita Roddick, who has died aged 64, wrote a number of articles for the NS. Earlier

A businesswoman once celebrated by the Chinese authorities was forced to flee to the US because she stood up for human rights. Now her children are being persecuted

In association with Amnesty International

Like me, Rebiya Kadeer is a businesswoman and a mother. Like me, she has a passionate interest in human rights and in the power of activism to change things.

Unlike me, Rebiya's career was based in China. And unlike me, she was harassed, then imprisoned for nearly six years. On her release, she has continued her activism from exile in the US. But the authorities back home have intensified their attacks on her sons and daughters.

Rebiya is a member of China's Uighur ethnic minority, who are predominantly Muslim. The authorities stepped up their persecution of Uighurs in the aftermath of 9/11. Mosques have been closed down, clergy detained, and Uighur books banned and their authors jailed. Freedom of expression and association have been severely restricted and thousands of people imprisoned across the region.

From 1997, Rebiya Kadeer suffered police harassment and travel restrictions due both to her husband's activism outside China as well as her own human-rights work on behalf of the Uighur people, such as forming the "Thousand Mothers' Movement" to encourage Uighur women to run their own businesses.

She was detained on 11 August 1999 in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region while trying to meet an American research group. Three weeks later, she was charged with "illegally offering state secrets across the border", which related to sending publicly available newspaper articles to her husband, who lives in the US.

Rebiya was released from prison in March 2005 on medical parole. While in custody she was warned that if she engaged with members of the Uighur community, or spoke publicly about "sensitive issues" after her release, her "businesses and children would be finished". Her sons were detained on charges of tax evasion and "subversion".

Defiant, Rebiya was elected president of the World Uighur Congress. Later the same day, her son Ablikim was reportedly beaten so badly while in detention that he was carried out of Tianshan District detention centre on a stretcher. Amnesty believes his health is in danger, and that he is at risk of further torture or ill-treatment.

Two other sons, Alim and Kahar, were sentenced the next day to fines of millions of dollars. Alim was given a seven-year sentence, on 46 counts of tax evasion. One of Rebiya's daughters was forced to witness her brothers Ablikim and Alim being beaten. She was then held under house arrest for a month, with seven policemen stationed outside her home.

Rebiya Kadeer's success in business had previously been celebrated by the authorities: she was appointed China's official representative to a United Nations women's conference in Beijing in 1995. She was well-known as the "millionaire woman of Xinjiang" and for a time was an adviser to China's National People's Congress.

I believe strongly that ordinary people can effect change. I have no doubt that Rebiya's release from prison was a result of the tireless work of campaigners across the world. But in China and dozens of other countries, human-rights defenders carry out this work at enormous risk. Even amid the threat of imprisonment, torture or death, a growing number of brave people continue to stand up to the authorities, in China and beyond.

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This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change