Nearly one in 25 people in a county in the Uighur heartland of China has been sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges in what is the highest known imprisonment rate in the world, a review of leaked data by The Associated Press news agency shows.
A list obtained and partially verified by the AP cites the names of more than 10,000 Uighurs sent to prison in just Konasheher county alone, one of the dozens in China’s southern Xinjiang region. In recent years, China has cracked down on the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority which it has described as a “war on terrorism”.
The list is by far the biggest to emerge to date with the names of imprisoned Uighurs, reflecting the sheer size of a Chinese government campaign by which an estimated one million or more people were swept into internment camps and prisons.
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It also confirms what families and rights groups have said for years: China is relying on a system of long-term imprisonment to keep the Uighurs 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 Uighurs were thrown in without charges. However, although attention focused on the camps, thousands of Uighurs still languish for years or even decades in prison on what experts say are trumped-up charges of terrorism.
Uighur farmer Rozikari Tohti was known as a soft-spoken, family-loving man with three children and not the slightest interest in religion. So his cousin, Mihrigul Musa, was shocked to discover Tohti had been thrown into prison for five years for “religious extremism”. She said she knew others more likely to be swept up in Xinjiang’s crackdown on religion, such as another cousin who prayed every week, but not Tohti.
“Never did I think he would be arrested,” said Musa, who now lives in exile in Norway. “If you saw him, you would feel the same way. He is so earnest.”
From the list, Musa found out Tohti’s younger brother Abilikim Tohti was also sentenced to seven years on charges of “gathering the public to disturb social order”. Tohti’s next-door neighbour, a farmer called Nurmemet Dawut, was sentenced to 11 years on the same charges as well as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
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 the people on the list were mostly arrested in 2017, according to Uighurs 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 Uighurs.
Experts say it clearly shows people were targeted simply for being Uighur – 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 Uighurs,” 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 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 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 is 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 imprisonment system, said most arrests were arbitrary and outside the law, with people jailed for having relatives abroad or downloading certain mobile phone applications. He has documented arrest quotas for local police, in some cases resulting in the men from entire villages being rounded up and whole families uprooted from their homes.
“It is really remarkable,” Byler said. “In no other location have we seen entire populations of people be described as terrorists or seen as terrorists … The state is trying to reframe the narrative and say, ‘you know, all of these people are actually criminals’.”
China has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where Uighurs have long resented Beijing’s heavy-handed rule, resulting in violent clashes with the Han-dominated government.
“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.”
But Ayup, the Uighur exile who passed on the list, has closely documented the ongoing repression of his community.
“We will win at the end because we are on the side of justice,” said Ayup. “We are on the right side of history.”