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Spiritual mother of Uighurs or terrorist?

Rebiya Kadeer is a petite, successful businesswoman, who now lives in exile in Virgina.

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She served only five years before she was released on health grounds and allowed to seek political asylum in the United States.

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There, she immediately became active in Uighur exile politics, lobbying Congress, making speeches and organizing protests outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "She is good at galvanizing a roomful of people and getting them to feel a sense of urgency," says Prof. Bovingdon.

In Chinese eyes, this was a violation of her "pledge never to engage in any activities that could jeopardize national security" in return for her release, as Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang put it on Tuesday. Since her arrival in the United States, two of her sons in China have been imprisoned.

What does the World Uyghur Congress want?

The Chinese government views the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) as a separatist movement bent on independence for Xinjiang, a resource-rich and strategically important region bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan among other nations. Beijing is intensely sensitive to threats to its territorial integrity both there and in Tibet.

The WUC is ambiguous about its ultimate goals, saying on its website that its main objective is "to promote the right of the Uighur people to use peaceful, non-violent, and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan."

As an umbrella group that pulled together a number of smaller exile Uigher organizations, ranging from outright separatists to cultural prerservation activists, the WUC "illustrated that these organizations could be brought into a broad church given a sufficiently vague platform," says Bovingdon.

This week, the Chinese authorities have made renewed efforts to portray the WUC, and its leader, as the front for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which the US State Department has classified as a terrorist organization – largely on the basis of Chinese security reports.

That "won't wash," argues Bovingdon, who says he has searched hard for links between the two organizations. "I have seen no evidence of any connection between the WUC and ETIM," he says bluntly.

Allegations that Kadeer was responsible for starting Sunday's riot, at least publicly, are based on a phone call she made to her brother in Urumqi on Sunday during which she said "something might happen in Urumqi tomorrow night," according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Kadeer told a press conference in Washington that she had expected protests about the recent death of two Uighur migrant workers at the hands of a Han mob in Guangdong Province, and was merely warning her brother to stay away from them.