The most prominent businesswoman from China's restive Uighur minority has been charged with a serious political crime, a human rights organization said today, highlighting a continued Chinese crackdown in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.

London-based Amnesty International said Rebiya Kadeer was charged Thursday with "illegally offering state secrets across the border." Kadeer's husband, Sidik Rouzi, a former Chinese political prisoner, broadcasts for Voice of America and has been highly critical of China's treatment of the Uighurs.

Kadeer's arrest highlights the failure of the Chinese government to persuade elite members of the Muslim minority group to accept federal authority in a province far from Beijing. In recent years, Uighur separatists have actively attempted to establish an independent state called East Turkestan, bordering three former central Asian republics, Russia and Mongolia.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers have been deployed in the region to crush the separatist movement, which differs significantly from the campaign for a separate state in Tibet, just south of Xinjiang. The Uighurs, unlike the Tibetans, have used violent tactics against the Chinese, killing police officers and Chinese settlers and bombing buses as far away as Beijing. But their movement is not as organized as the Tibetan campaign--which is led by the Dalai Lama, the exiled temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet who is based in the mountains of northern India.

For several years in the mid-1990s, Kadeer was lionized in China as a poor Uighur who had advanced from laundress to millionaire through hard work and the help of a benevolent government. She gained prominence for encouraging Uighur women to start their own businesses. From 1993 to 1998, she served as an elected member of the provincial People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the local legislature.

Signs that she was heading for a fall came in March 1998 when Wang Lequan, the vice governor of Xinjiang, told reporters that Rebiya was not reelected because she had "failed to explicitly express her opposition to" her husband's anti-Chinese broadcasts.

"It should be said that she is not qualified politically, and for this reason she has not been elected to the present session," Wang said.

Subsequently, Chinese authorities apparently criticized her for allowing her sons to leave China and join her husband in the United States.