reveals scale of imprisonment in China's Uyghur heartland
May 18, 2022
Uyghur Memetali Abdureshid, who ran a car repair shop, was listed as being sentenced to 15 years and 11 months in prison.(AP: Nursimangul Abdureshid)
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, according to an Associated Press (AP) review of leaked data.
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 reportedly waged a brutal crackdown on Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority, which its leaders have described as their country's "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 that swept an estimated one million or more people into internment camps and prisons.
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.
Konasheher County is a county in Kashgar Prefecture, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China.(AP)
The plight of Nursimangul Abdureshid's family shows how so-called "students" released from internment camps can simply be sent to prisons by the Chinese government instead.
"It's a total lie. They just try to whitewash their crime," said Ms Abdureshid, who lives in exile in Turkey.
In 2017, a relative told Ms Abdureshid that both her parents and her younger brother had been taken away to study, a euphemism referring to the short-term detention camps.
It was only three years later, in 2020, that the Chinese embassy called her with information that all three had been arrested and sentenced to prison for more than a decade.
The leaked list was the first outside confirmation of what had happened to her brother since that call, she said.
Her brother, Memetali Abdureshid, 32, had been sentenced to 15 years and 11 months on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" and "preparing to carry out terrorist activities".
Ms Abdureshid saw eight names she recognised on the list, but not those of her parents.
She and six other Uyghur exiles who spoke to the AP say the list is incomplete because they did not see some people they were close to, meaning the imprisonment rate could in fact be even higher.
Names on list had one thing in common
Konasheher county is typical of rural southern Xinjiang, and more than 267,000 people live there.
The prison sentences across the county were for two to 25 years, with an average of nine years, the list shows.
While people on the list were mostly arrested in 2017, according to Uyghurs in exile, their sentences are so long that the vast majority would still be in prison.
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.
Experts said it clearly showed 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 will never specifically target specific regions, ethnic groups, religions, much less the Uyghurs," Mr Anayat said.
"We will never wrong the good, nor release the bad."
The list was obtained by Xinjiang scholar Gene Bunin from an anonymous source who described themselves as a member of China's Han Chinese majority who is "opposed to the Chinese government's policies in Xinjiang".
It was passed to the AP by Abduweli Ayup, an exiled Uyghur linguist in Norway.
The AP authenticated it through interviews with eight Uyghurs who recognised 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.
Alim Osman says leaked information is sought after by the Uyghur community worldwide. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
Alim Osman, the head of the Uyghur association of Victoria, said lists such as the one obtained by Mr Ayup were a valuable opportunity for Uyghurs around the world to find out what had happened to disappeared loved ones.
"All the community here that lost their family members or loved ones or friends, they would be looking at the list," he said.
He said he wasn't at all surprised by the number of people on the list.
"In Australia, we have around 3,000 Uyghur population and every one of us knows someone — from their family members, friends, classmates or teachers — [who] disappeared," he said.
"So this is no surprise to us."
An entire population 'seen as terrorists'
The list does not include people with typical criminal charges, such as homicide or theft.
Rather, it focuses on offences related to terrorism, religious extremism or vague charges traditionally used against political dissidents, such as "picking quarrels and provoking troubles".
This means the true number of people imprisoned is almost certainly higher.
However, 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 US 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.
Darren Byler — an expert on Xinjiang's mass-incarceration system — said most arrests were arbitrary and outside the law, with people detained for having relatives abroad or downloading certain cell phone applications.
"It is really remarkable," Mr Byler said.
"In no other location have we seen entire populations of people be described as terrorists or seen as terrorists."
Detention centres in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region hold tens of thousands of prisoners. (AP: Mark Schiefelbein)
China's crackdown kicked into high gear in 2017, after a string of stabbings and bombings by Uyghur militants.
The Chinese government defended the mass detentions as both lawful and necessary to combat terrorism.
In December 2019, Xinjiang officials said that all of whom they described as "trainees" at the "centres" had "graduated".
Visits by Associated Press journalists to four former camp sites confirm that they were closed or converted into other facilities.
However, even as the camps closed, the prisons grew.
At least a few camp sites were converted into centres for incarceration.
'These charges are absurd'
China is using the law "as a fig leaf of legality", in part to try to deflect international criticism about holding Uyghurs, said Jeremy Daum, a criminal law expert at Yale University's Paul Tsai China Centre.
The secretive nature of the charges against those imprisoned is a red flag, experts say.
Although China makes legal records easily accessible otherwise, almost 90 per cent of criminal records in Xinjiang are not public.
The handful which have leaked show that people are being charged with "terrorism" for acts such as warning colleagues against watching porn and swearing, or praying in prison.
Mr Ayup, the Uyghur exile who passed the list to the AP, has closely documented the ongoing repression of his community.
However, this list, in particular, floored him: On it were neighbours, a cousin, a high school teacher.
"I had collapsed," Mr Ayup said. "I had told other people's stories … and now this is me telling my own story from my childhood."
A teacher, Adil Tursun, was a Communist Party member, and every year his students had the best chemistry test scores in his town.
The names of Mr Tursun and others on the list made no sense to Mr Ayup because they were considered model Uyghurs.
"The names of the crimes, spreading extremist thoughts, separatism … these charges are absurd," he said.