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From camps to prisons: Xinjiang’s next great human rights catastrophe

Ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang hold up photos of their sentenced relatives.

Just a little over a decade ago, the facility on 1327 Dongzhan Road, a few kilometers north of the forlorn freight station in the northern outskirts of Xinjiang’s Urumqi, was mostly trees and grass. On September 16, 2009, it officially became the new location of the Xinjiang Women’s Prison and of the Qixin Clothing Factory (run by “marketing specialist” Zong Liang, a Party member for whom prisons were his entire career). The move came on the heels of the infamous July 5 riots, and it wouldn’t be long before the new facility received what would become its first high-profile inmate – the writer, website moderator, and government employee Gulmire Imin. Convicted of “splittism, leaking state secrets, and organizing an illegal demonstration”, Imin was sentenced to life in a closed trial, despite alleged torture and lack of access to a lawyer.

In the years that followed, the prison compound saw the construction of several new buildings, the continued operation of Qixin (together with the addition of another clothing company), and allegations of abuse, torture, and illegal imprisonment by Falun Gong groups. Despite continued international attention, Gulmire Imin was not freed, and – with the coming of Chen Quanguo in late 2016 – has instead been joined by other women whose modest biographies are in stark contrast with the gravity of their sentences. One of them, Buzeynep Abdureshit, a 27-year-old whose only possible “crimes” were having studied in Egypt and having a husband abroad, was sentenced to seven years in 2017 for “assembling a crowd to disturb social order”. In June of this year, the prison also became home to Nurzada Zhumaqan and Erlan Qabden – both ethnic Kazakh women in their fifties, both with health issues, and both having committed no identifiable crime. Their prison terms? 20 and 19 years, respectively.

Guards at a registration booth of the women’s prison in Urumqi. (source: “Xinjiang Prison Discipline Inspection and Supervision” WeChat account.)

Their barbarian nature aside, these recent sentences are particularly worrying as they indicate the likely direction in which the repressions in Xinjiang are now heading. Following a year and a half of the incarceration of millions in police detention centers and de facto concentration camps, the Chinese authorities have unmistakably changed course in the fall of 2018. In an effort to fend off both international condemnation and the increased media coverage, Beijing has reacted by launching a campaign to whitewash the camps – through media propaganda, Potemkin tours, and solicited diplomatic approval – while simultaneously dismantling the system and releasing many into various forms of residential surveillance or forced job placement. However, as suggested by the government’s own statistics, some limited reporting, and the new evidence presented by victims’ relatives and former detainees in neighboring Kazakhstan, an incredible number of those detained in 2017 and 2018 are now being given lengthy sentences and transferred to major prisons like the one in Urumqi.

The official incarceration notice for Erlan Qabden (with corresponding English translation by the author).

For Aibota Zhanibek, the older of Nurzada Zhumaqan’s daughters and now Kazakhstan citizen, the news was especially heartbreaking as it came around the New Year – a time when many in Kazakhstan were learning that their relatives had been let out of camps in the wave of mass releases in late December 2018. While many shared the good news, Zhanibek would learn that her mother had not been released but instead had been given a 15-year sentence (later confirmed as 20). The charges, officially presented as “using superstition to undermine law enforcement” and “assembling a crowd to disturb social order”, were, according to Zhanibek, founded on her mother having studied with an imam in 2005, praying and teaching others how to pray, and letting her younger daughter briefly study religion at a girls school in Yunnan province. Another supposed charge, dismissed by Zhanibek as completely absurd, is that her mother – a shop owner and housewife – had called on other women to cover their faces. In the case of Erlan Qabden, a nurse from another county of the same prefecture as Zhumaqan, the charges – “using extremism to undermine law enforcement”, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – are just as vague, and the probable roots equally strange. According to her relatives in Kazakhstan, Qabden was detained for attending a weekly flagraising ceremony with a headscarf on – a necessity given the medical treatment she was undergoing at the time.

At the office of the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization in Almaty, where Zhanibek appears weekly to appeal for her mother on camera and the only place in the world that offers such a service, things are no longer as busy as they once were, following a government crackdown on the group’s activity. Still, of the twenty-odd people who do come to testify and appeal on a given week, the vast majority no longer talk of camps – as was the case a year ago – but of prisons. Most of the information is fragmentary and corrupted by hearsay, and only in a small handful of cases do people have the official documents to prove their relatives’ imprisonment. However, just talking to a dozen or so of the appealing parties is sufficient to start noticing the trends: the long sentences, the months or even years of pre-trial detention, and the “popular” destinations (a prison in Wusu City, the “Zhanga Turme” prison in Kunes County’s Qarabura Township, the recently constructed Bingtuan Prison in southwestern Urumqi). Religious men, in particular, appear to be especially targeted for formal imprisonment.

Owing to Atajurt’s months of evidence gathering – presented to the world as thousands of public video testimonies and parsed into usable form by the Xinjiang Victims Database – a statistical profiling of the victims, even if approximate, makes it possible to corroborate some of these observations in a more rigorous manner. In comparing the 204 Kazakh victims who are reported to have received prison sentences with the 229 Kazakh victims who were reported released from camp, one notices a striking contrast: over 90% of the sentenced are men (cf., 69% of the released), with almost 75% believed to be detained for religious reasons (cf., 27%), as opposed to for going abroad (i.e., to Kazakhstan) or having contact with the outside world (e.g., using the WhatsApp chat client). The older demographic (55+) is also less represented among the sentenced, while the youngest (18-35) is represented slightly more.

In addition to being consistent with the appeals of those currently visiting the Atajurt office, this apparent persecution of religious men is further corroborated by former members of China’s religious system. Nurbergen*, once a government-licensed imam who himself followed the Party line and preached its ideology prior to his relocation to Kazakhstan a few years ago, talks of how the government had taken him and other imams on study tours around inner China, training them to be loyal and patriotic, but only to ultimately jail most of them in the recent crackdowns. One of his former colleagues, Nurgazy Malik – the editor-in-chief of the government-approved “Friday Sermon” magazine – was said to have died in detention last November, with friends and relatives in Kazakhstan holding a funeral for him soon after.

“They raised us like sheep,” Nurbergen says. “They took us all around the country, trained us. And then, having fattened us up, slaughtered us.”

In a recently published interview in The Believer, Qulzhabek Nurdangazy, another former state-approved imam having since relocated to Kazakhstan, says much of the same – noting that the imams were among the first targets of the mass detentions, which then gradually spread to anyone having anything to do with Islam.

A comparison of age, gender, and detention-reason distributions for Kazakh victims who have been sentenced to prison vs. Kazakh victims who were released from camp. (source: Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed on September 17, 2019)

Another stunning statistic is the alleged length of the sentences. An analysis of 311 victims with reported prison terms shows an average sentence of 11.2 years, with 89% of the sentenced given a term of 5 years or longer. While it should be underscored that the vast majority of the reported numbers are obtained through oral testimony, which in turn is often based on hearsay, those cases for which official notices are available – such as Zhumaqan’s (20 years) or Qabden’s (19 years) – appear to suggest that these reports are not mere exaggerations. There are also cases when the number is “semi-official”, such as that of Qaliolla Tursyn – a 70-year-old legal consultant whose entire family, wife and two sons, was detained in March 2018 after he tried to send a complaint to the authorities in Beijing. While going to the Chinese consulate in Almaty to submit an invitation letter, Tursyn’s daughter-in-law says that she was taken aside by three members of the consular staff and told that Tursyn had been given a 20-year sentence, though no official documentation was presented.

The reported prison terms of victims who have been sentenced in Xinjiang since late 2016. (source: Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed on September 17, 2019)

Among the documented cases, there are also those that offer insight into how long a person can be detained – sometimes extralegally – prior to being sentenced. An analysis of 65 such victims detained for 2 months or longer shows that, for these victims, the average pre-sentence detention was approximately 9 months, with over 30% held for a year or longer. In the case of detention within China’s legal framework, this usually means being interned in a pre-trial detention center (kanshousuo) – a notoriously abused institution where former detainees have reported extreme mistreatment and horrible living conditions.

However, there are also very strong grounds to believe that those interned extralegally in the region’s “re-education” camps are also being sentenced while still in the camps. Two Kazakh ex-detainees that I spoke to – both having spent the majority of 2018 in the “re-education” centers – talked of witnessing “open court sessions”, where camp inmates were assigned prison sentences based on any number of “transgressions” or displays of poor “study” performance. One of the two, Ruslan*, a Kazakhstan citizen who was able to return to Kazakhstan just months ago, says that this started towards the end of last year. Picking up his phone, he contacts another ex-detainee from the same facility for help remembering the names of four fellow inmates who were given prison sentences of 10 years or longer: Abdunasir, Paruq, Syndar, Zhiger.

Durations that victims spent in prolonged detention, of 2 months or longer, prior to being sentenced. (source: Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed on September 17, 2019)

While he does not know their last names, Ruslan recognizes the photo of the last one – Zhiger Toqai, his former cellmate and a student at the Satbayev University in Almaty, who returned to China during the 2017 summer break and was arrested for allegedly writing a poetry verse about how Kazakh women shouldn’t get married to Han Chinese men. Toqai’s relatives in Kazakhstan had started appealing for him in January.

“People who got less than 10 years stayed there,” Ruslan recalls. “The ones who got 10 or more were sent off to the real prisons.”

Ergali Ermek, another ex-detainee who spent over a year in detention before being released at the end of last year, mentions the “10-year rule” as well, while adding that at his facility the sentencings started in early 2018, but that it would only be in October that the people given long sentences started being taken and bussed away at night. He himself did not attend any of the “open sessions”, but does recall his cellmates talking about them.

Finally, in a recently published interview, Rahima Senbai, who spent about a year in detention before being released and eventually allowed back to Kazakhstan, recalls a single day in camp that was unlike the rest:

“Except for the day I arrived and the day I left, only one day in the camp was different. That was the day of the open trial. They brought in seven women from a nearby prison who had been charged with gathering in a private home to pray together. During Ramadan, in the evening, you celebrate auyzashar [iftar], and the seven women had organized a meal and a prayer. That was their crime. At the trial, they read these accusations and sentenced each of the women to seven years in prison. They called it open court. None of the women spoke.”

Whether intentionally or at the mercy of their own momentum, the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang appear to be creating yet another fight-or-die scenario without a middle ground. By employing their legal framework to do what the extralegal ultimately could not, they are effectively casting away all pretenses of legitimacy, and giving many no choice but to do the unthinkable – to defy China its sovereign right to decide what is and isn’t legal.

University student Zhiger Toqai, arrested in the summer of 2017, was first sent to camp, then sentenced to over 10 years in prison in 2018 (as confirmed by both his relatives and those who were in camp with him).

And yet, there do remain indications that the unthinkable may not be that wild after all, as the ease with which the sentences are given may signal the ease of their repeal. Ruslan recalls how he too was sentenced to 7 years for having gone to Kazakhstan, before being released a month or two later. Ergali Ermek was sentenced also – being taken to a formal court in April 2018 and given a 3-year term for four different reasons, the verdict officially stamped. Yet in the December of the same year, following what he believes was pressure from the Kazakhstan government, officials visited his facility and asked the inmates which of them had relatives in Kazakhstan, with Ermek raising his hand and ultimately being let go not long after. Finally, in what may be the most inspirational case so far, Gulbahar Haitiwaji – an Uyghur woman with French residence who was arrested in early 2017 and sentenced to 7 years at the end of 2018 for “disturbing social order” – made it back to France just recently, following her daughter’s persistent campaigning.

While there is much to despair about in the Xinjiang of today, the same wanton abuse of the law that gives rise to the despair is also what opens the door for hope and possibility. Perhaps, even for those like Gulmire Imin.

* Names altered at the sources’ request.


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