Rebiya Kadeer says she called her brother in China’s western region of Xinjiang to warn him that ethnic Uighur Muslims would be protesting on the streets the next day and to urge him not to participate.
Ms Kadeer, a US-based leader of the World Uyghur Congress, a Uighur rights group, says she learned of the protest from her daughters, who read about it on the internet.
The July 4th call, the last communication Ms Kadeer has had with her family in China since days of rioting engulfed the mostly Muslim province, is being held up as evidence by Chinese officials who claim she instigated the protests, which have claimed the lives of 184 people and left more than a thousand injured.
By her count, Ms Kadeer has given hundreds of interviews since Sunday explaining to news outlets from around the world why she believes the protests turned deadly last weekend and insisting she is not to blame.
“The root cause of this tragedy lies with the Chinese government policy,” she says, policy she believes is intended to repress the local culture of Uighurs, including preventing them speaking their own language, banning religious instruction for children under 18 and flooding the region with ethnic Han Chinese.
“As a rule of thumb, whatever happens in Tibet, the Chinese authorities are quick to point a finger at the Dalai Lama, his Holiness, as the source or the instigator of the problems there,” she said this week. “So it is with me as well – the Chinese government always blames me and the World Uighur Congress for whatever problems they have there [in Xinjiang]”.
After addressing scores of mostly Uighur protesters outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Tuesday, Ms Kadeer, once proclaimed the wealthiest woman in China, sat barefoot on the ground behind some parked baby prams, shaded by shrubbery.
A young Uighur man came by with several boxes of pizzas, and after quietly eating her slice, Ms Kadeer fielded more reporters’ questions about injustices Uighurs face, the media and China.
The following day she gave back-to-back radio, TV and newspaper interviews. And on Wednesday she wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, in which she condemned the violence of both the protesters and the riot police.
The first stories about the clashes from Chinese state-run media already suggested that Uighur groups abroad had masterminded the riots. Some reports mentioned Ms Kadeer by name, though she denies any connection to the protests or the violence.
Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief, Wang Lequan, told local TV that the clashes in Urumqi revealed Ms Kadeer’s “fake human rights, fake democracy, true violence and true terrorism”. Mr Wang and Ms Kadeer are acquaintances – but already sparring – in the days when she was held up as an example for all Uighurs and all women in China, according to her autobiography, Dragon Fighter.
Ms Kadeer built up her own business enterprise as the Chinese economy began opening about 30 years ago. When she had earned millions from her trading company and department store and made a name for herself as philanthropist, the government invited her to join the local chamber of commerce and to serve as a representative to Beijing and even internationally at a UN conference on women.
In 1999, all that came to an end when Ms Kadeer was imprisoned for six years for allegedly stealing state secrets. She was released years later to the United States, where her husband and some of her 11 children were already living in exile.
Even this week, her story has been held up by some in China – including a Xinhua commentator – as an example of the potential that exists in China for Uighurs and other minorities.
Ms Kadeer still has about 40 family members in China, including siblings, children and grandchildren. Two of her sons are in jail, she believes, because she has taken leadership roles in Uighur rights groups abroad. She said her family members are under constant scrutiny because of her, and this is one reason she called her younger brother the day before the riots.
Although the Uighur cause, which she has spent a lifetime championing, is finally drawing the global attention she believes it has always deserved, Ms Kadeer has yet to see any gains.
“Everything looks terrible now,” she said. “I hope the Chinese leaders will wake up from the tragic events and accept the fact that their six-decade-long repressive policies have simply failed in East Turkestan,” she said, referring to Xinjiang by its Uighur name. “Otherwise, it is hard to imagine anything good has come out of the loss of so many innocent lives of Uighurs and Chinese.”