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China: Uyghur has highest imprisonment rate in world, at least 1 in 25 sentenced to prison

 In recent years, China has waged a brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority, which it has described as a war on terror.

AP Reported by: AP Beijing Published on: May 16, 2022 14:23 IST
Police officers stand at the outer entrance of the Urumqi
Image Source : AP

Police officers stand at the outer entrance of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Nearly one in 25 people in a county in the Uyghur heartland of China has been sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges, in what is the highest known imprisonment rate in the world, an Associated Press review of leaked data shows.

A list obtained and partially verified by the AP cites the names of more than 10,000 Uyghurs sent to prison in just Konasheher county alone, one of dozens in southern Xinjiang. In recent years, China has waged a brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority, which it has described as a war on terror.

The list is by far the biggest to emerge to date with the names of imprisoned Uyghurs, reflecting the sheer size of a Chinese government campaign by which an estimated million or more people were swept into internment camps and prisons. It also confirms what families and rights groups have said for years: China is relying on a system of long-term incarceration to keep the Uyghurs in check, wielding the law as a weapon of repression.

Under searing international criticism, Chinese officials announced the closure in 2019 of short-term, extrajudicial internment camps where Uyghurs were thrown in without charges. However, although attention focused on the camps, thousands of Uyghurs still languish for years or even decades in prison on what experts say are trumped-up charges of terrorism.

Those swept up came from all walks of life, and included men, women, young people and the elderly. They had only one thing in common: They were all Uyghurs.

China's defense 

Experts say it clearly shows people were targeted simply for being Uyghur – a conclusion vehemently denied by Chinese authorities. Xinjiang spokesman Elijan Anayat said sentences were carried out in accordance with the law.

“We would never specifically target specific regions, ethnic groups or religions, much less the Uyghurs,” Anayat said. “We would never wrong the good, nor release the bad.”

The list offers the widest and most granular look yet at who is in prison in Xinjiang. It was obtained by Xinjiang scholar Gene Bunin from an anonymous source who described themselves as a member of China's Han Chinese majority "opposed to the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang.”

The list was passed to The AP by Abduweli Ayup, an exiled Uyghur linguist in Norway. The AP authenticated it through interviews with eight Uyghurs who recognized 194 people on the list, as well as legal notices, recordings of phone calls with Chinese officials and checks of address, birthdays and identity numbers.

The list does not include people with typical criminal charges such as homicide or theft. Rather, it focuses on offenses related to terrorism, religious extremism or vague charges traditionally used against political dissidents, such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” This means the true number of people imprisoned is almost certainly higher.

But even at a conservative estimate, Konasheher county’s imprisonment rate is more than 10 times higher than that of the United States, one of the world’s leading jailers, according to Department of Justice statistics. It’s also more than 30 times higher than for China as a whole, according to state statistics from 2013, the last time such figures were released.

After 9/11...

China has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where Uyghurs have long resented Beijing’s heavy-handed rule, resulting in violent clashes with the Han-dominated government. With the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Chinese officials began using the specter of terrorism to justify tight controls.

India Tv - Konasheher County is a county in Kashgar Prefecture, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China.

Image Source : AP

Konasheher County is a county in Kashgar Prefecture, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China.

The crackdown kicked into high gear in 2017, after a string of knifings and bombings carried out by a small handful of Uyghur militants. The Chinese government defended the mass detentions as both lawful and necessary to combat terrorism.

In 2019, Xinjiang officials declared the short-term detention camps closed, and said that all of whom they described as “trainees” had “graduated." Visits by Associated Press journalists to four former camp sites confirmed that they were shuttered or converted into other facilities.

But the prisons remain. Xinjiang went on a prison-building spree in tandem with the crackdown, and even as the camps closed, the prisons expanded. At least a few camp sites were converted into centers for incarceration, including one that was turned into a pre-trial detention center twice the size of Vatican City and estimated to have capacity for 10,000 people or more.

Satellite imagery obtained and analyzed by BuzzFeed suggests that by April 2021, the Chinese government had enough prison space in Xinjiang to cover a third of the island of Manhattan. In the meantime, China declared success in keeping Xinjiang safe.

“In the past five years, Xinjiang has been free from violent terrorist incidents,” said China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in February. “People of all ethnicities have lived a happy and peaceful life.”

China is using the law “as a fig leaf of legality” in part to try and deflect international criticism about holding Uyghurs, said Jeremy Daum, a criminal law expert at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center.

“But following the law doesn’t mean justice or fairness,” said Daum, who reviewed the data and was not involved in its leak. “It just means it’s ‘legal.’”

Over the last eight years, experts say, Chinese authorities expanded the definition of extremism to include displays of religion such as growing a long beard or wearing a veil. Some charges for prisoners on the list are new and specific to Xinjiang, such as “preparing to carry out terrorism,” a charge that was newly defined in 2016. The sheer volume of the convictions was “extraordinary,” Daum added.

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