She was a trailblazing 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 awards and research grants. But it was not enough to keep her safe.
Rahile Dawut, who nurtured 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 crush the Uyghur cultural identity. Details about her case were shrouded in secrecy for years, leaving her family and friends to wonder about her fate.
On Thursday, the Dui Hua Foundation, a group that campaigns on behalf of political prisoners held in China, said that it had seen a document written by a senior Chinese official stating that Dr. Rahile Dawut had been sentenced to life in prison on charges of endangering national security.
“For the Chinese government to strike her is really to strike at the heart of Uyghur culture,” John Kamm, the group’s founder and chairman, said in a phone interview. “It’s appalling.”
Mr. Kamm added that the official also wrote that Dr. Rahile Dawut had attempted to appeal her sentence after she was first tried in 2018, but that her appeal was rejected. The Chinese government has applied a sweeping definition of “endangering national security” to detain and often imprison Uyghurs deemed to oppose or even question official policies.
Her daughter, Akeda Pulati, who lives in Seattle, said that the prospect of never again seeing her mother was deeply painful.
“I felt very angry and devastated,” at learning of the sentence, she said in a phone interview, “even though I was already devastated for several years.” She added, “I couldn’t accept the news when I heard it.”
Born in 1966 to a family of intellectuals in Urumqi, Dr. Rahile Dawut studied folklore at Beijing Normal University and was one of the first Uyghur women to earn a Ph.D. A version of her thesis mapped out Uyghur shrines, known as mazars, down to their coordinates, bringing her renown among academics and travelers alike.
She then became a professor at Xinjiang University, the premier college of the region, and founded a folklore institute. Throughout her career, she took meticulous records of Uyghur religious traditions and oral epic poetry, with a special focus on women’s roles in cultural rites.
“She recognized how precarious, how fragile these traditions were and how they were always at risk of being stamped out politically,” said Rachel Harris, a professor of ethnomusicology at the SOAS University of London, who has known Dr. Rahile Dawut for two decades. “So she was driven to document, and she was driven to disseminate and transmit the understanding of these traditions as well.”
At Xinjiang University, Dr. Rahile Dawut was a fulcrum 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 scholars went when they arrived to study the region, colleagues said. Her house in Urumqi was at the heart of many gatherings among local and visiting scholars. She was known for cooking polo, a Uyghur rice pilaf, and even delivering soup to the dormitories of students who were sick.
In the field, she taught students to not only take from people they interviewed, but to give back where possible, printing photographs that she shared when she returned to the region. She was guided by an urgency to document customs before they were targeted by political or religious ideologies, including strains of 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 shrine pilgrimages, which was translated to English.Her database on dastan, Uyghur oral epics, was almost 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 appeared to be precisely the breadth and significance of her work that ensnared her.
In 2017, when China erected internment camps to stamp out what it described as religious extremism in Xinjiang, the authorities also began erasing signs of Uyghur heritage, destroying mosques and the rural religious sites Dr. Rahile Dawut studied. Religious practitioners like those she had interviewed in the countryside were rounded up.
They came for her, too, that December. More than 100 Uyghur academics, intellectuals and writers disappeared into detention during that time.
Dr. Rahile Dawut is not the only Uyghur intellectual known to have received a life sentence on charges of endangering national security. Ilham Tohti, an economist and professor who had critiqued China’s policy on ethnic minorities, was sentenced to life in a 2014 trial that was largely viewed as a public warning against challenging the Chinese government.
From 2017 to last September, over