An excerpt from the appeal letter of Kazakh student Bagdat Akin, written after over two years in custody. (Drawing by @YetteSu.)
Gene A. Bunin
This is the third in a series of three articles highlighting the massive expansion of the prison system in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that has taken place in recent years. The prisons have been running in parallel with the much-covered concentration camps (“vocational training centers”) and possess many of the same traits, interning hundreds of thousands without real due process and engaging in labor exploitation. However, while international action has led to many, if not most, detainees being let out from the camps, those in prisons have been given sentences that often range from 10 to 20 years, and have yet to see any real concessions. The world remains passive on the issue. (Click here to read Part II.)
Download the PDF version of this essay here (3.19MB)
In using the legal system to sentence hundreds of thousands, the Xinjiang authorities have effectively performed the notorious act of mass incarceration “in accordance with the law” (依法) – two characters that appear an incredible number of times in the documents produced by the courts, procuratorates, and public security organs. Though more of a red stamp than words that carry actual meaning, the phrase does nevertheless underline an important point: the actual mechanisms at work behind the nominally legal incarceration and sentencing are different from those of incarceration in the extralegal camps.
From a legal perspective, incarceration in the camps is somewhat of a circus, where the formal court system essentially has no role and where many, if not most, decisions appear to rest with the neighborhood and village administration committees – the base government units in the People’s Republic of China. Taking as an example the Karakash List – a 137-page government document that outlines the fates of hundreds of Uyghurs taken to camps in Hoten’s Karakash County – one finds approximately 40 instances of the phrase “sent to training by the … neighborhood administration” (被/由 … 社区送培) and another 20 of the phrase “sent to training by the … village” (被/由 … 村送培). Likewise, the phrase “as determined by the neighborhood administration” (经社区研判) precedes around 100 recommendations about whether a certain person should remain in camp or not. Over a dozen eyewitness accounts act as testament to the complete absence of lawyers and anything that even resembles due process, with formal written documentation either scarce, absurd, or non-existent. Both firsthand accounts and actual police records show close cooperation between the local neighborhood/village committees and nearby police stations, with the latter playing the role of a physical coercion instrument and, in some cases, interrogating or investigating the detainee before they are sent to camp. The actual arrest procedure – from being (nominally) free to being in camp – usually takes between a few hours and a few days, though notable exceptions do exist.
Needless to say that none of this is “in accordance with the law”, not even by Xinjiang standards.
As such, the standard procedure as experienced by most who get sentenced through the legal system may seem laudable by comparison. Here, the local neighborhood and village administrations appear to have minimal, if any, involvement, and it is the police, the procuratorates, and the courts who run the show. In the typical case, the individual is first detained by the police and a detention notice is issued to relatives. The police then have up to 37 days to have the procuratorate approve the formal arrest (releasing the individual if the proper warrant cannot be secured). This, too, is followed by a formal arrest notice being issued to relatives, and sometimes publicly. Following a period of investigation, the police send the relevant materials to the procuratorate, which then files a written indictment against the individual, sending it to the court, while notifying – again, in writing – the individual of their right to legal assistance. The court hearings that follow are documented in written verdicts, with the defendant allowed to appeal, also in writing. After the individual is found guilty and transferred to prison, the prison as well issues a written incarceration notice to the individual’s family to say that they have received the new prisoner. Overall, the procedure is well defined, appears to be consistent across all of China, and leaves an enormous paper trail.
The paper trail of China’s judicial system, from the initial arrest of a given individual to their arrival in prison to serve their sentence. The schematic is based on empirical observation and obtained documents, and may not be comprehensive.
Challenging such a polished and authoritative system is, understandably, an unattractive task, and it is far easier to attack the extralegal camps, screaming “never again!” and making analogies to the Nazis. However, challenge this system one must, and not only because of the hundreds of thousands that it now holds and plans to hold for decades. The legal system, as applied in Xinjiang today, must be challenged mercilessly because it is completely illegitimate and egregiously illegal in its behavior.
To start, there is the total lack of transparency. The court verdicts, which serve as the core documentation of a given individual’s trial and sentence, are nowhere to be found despite the fact that they should exist and, as suggested by the limited empirical evidence so far, probably do. One effective comparative tool that allows to quantify this absence of transparency is the criminal “verdict-to-case ratio” – specifically, the number of criminal verdicts publicly listed on China Judgments Online (China’s main court-document repository) versus the number of criminal cases reported. For Xinjiang, which reported a total of 74348 criminal cases being concluded in 2018, only 7714 criminal verdicts are available in the repository for that year, yielding a ratio of 1 : 9.64. This is incredibly low in comparison to the rest of the country, with even Tibet – a region that is even more closed – displaying a better rate of documentation. As such, not only is Xinjiang disproportionately ahead of the rest of the country in arrests, prosecutions, and sentences, it is also an entire order of magnitude ahead when it comes to not disclosing the information.
Criminal verdicts (刑事判决书) available on China Judgments Online versus criminal cases concluded (审结刑事案件) in 2018, for various provincial-level regions across China. Case counts are sourced from official work reports. Sometimes, only the first-instance case (一审案件) counts were reported, and the verdict count was consequently limited to first-instance only as well in order to allow comparison – these are marked with an asterisk (*). For a few regions, 2018 reports were not available and either 2017 or 2019 reports were used. Some case counts may also be approximate as a result of rounding. The count for Hainan includes non-concluded cases as well, though the difference is expected to be negligible. It is not clear why the verdict number is greater than the case count for Yunnan, but this may be due to a system error or some verdicts being uploaded multiple times (something previously observed on China Judgments Online).
|Xinjiang||7714||74348||1 : 9.64|
|Tibet||998||2524||1 : 2.53|
|Hainan||5337||12457||1 : 2.33|
|Liaoning||31171||66421||1 : 2.13|
|Fujian||43115||77600||1 : 1.80|
|Hubei||38504||61595||1 : 1.60|
|Anhui||38806||58910||1 : 1.52|
|Inner Mongolia* (2019)||19811||29000||1 : 1.46|
|Guizhou||23561||32445||1 : 1.38|
|Guangdong*||87345||120000||1 : 1.37|
|Beijing||16084||21928||1 : 1.36|
|Shanxi*||19822||25328||1 : 1.28|
|Guangxi*||29789||37220||1 : 1.25|
|Shaanxi*||19545||23800||1 : 1.22|
|Jiangxi||29616||35588||1 : 1.20|
|Heilongjiang*||23326||28000||1 : 1.20|
|Ningxia*||4882||5850||1 : 1.20|
|Zhejiang* (2017)||62621||75000||1 : 1.20|
|Shandong* (2019)||75159||89000||1 : 1.18|
|Jiangsu*||67950||78833||1 : 1.16|
|Henan*||80694||91566||1 : 1.13|
|Hebei*||40557||45600||1 : 1.12|
|Shanghai*||25243||28000||1 : 1.11|
|Qinghai*||4483||4845||1 : 1.08|
|Chongqing*||22753||24198||1 : 1.06|
|Hunan*||52713||55000||1 : 1.04|
|Jilin*||23946||24178||1 : 1.01|
|Yunnan*||42973||41708||1 : 0.97|
A survey of the 7700+ criminal verdicts that are listed reveals additional problems. Mainly, the vast majority deal with concrete and universally understood offenses that are usually either physical (robbery, murder, disorderly conduct) or financial (graft, illegal trafficking, forgery) in nature. The contestable “crimes” typically applied to Xinjiang’s ethnic-minority population (e.g., “terrorism”, “extremism”, “inciting ethnic hatred”, “disturbing social order”) make up less than 1% of the 7700+ criminal verdicts. Specifically, there are 3 criminal verdicts for “propagating terrorism and extremism, and inciting terrorist activities” (宣扬恐怖主义、极端主义、煽动实施恐怖活动罪), 1 criminal verdict for “illegal possession of items propagating terrorism and extremism” (非法持有宣扬恐怖主义、极端主义物品罪), 19 criminal verdicts for “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” (煽动民族仇恨、民族歧视罪), and 18 criminal verdicts for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” (聚众扰乱社会秩序罪). Virtually all of the defendants in these cases are Uyghur. To make matters worse, not even these 41 verdicts are open to public scrutiny, as all 41 have had their content removed, often citing “other reasons for the court not finding it appropriate to publish publicly online” (法院认为不宜在互联网公布的其他情形).
In a large number of instances, verdicts that have been previously listed – even those without content – have been removed. At the end of 2019, fearing that the Chinese authorities may start to scrub documents and listings from China Judgments Online, staff and volunteers at the Xinjiang Victims Database went through and archived as many as was relevant and possible. While almost all of the “sensitive” cases archived had had their content removed already, archiving them has nevertheless made it possible to compare the numbers: of what was available then to what is currently available now. Taking the year 2019 as an example, we can see that the vast majority of the court documents and listings pertaining to the cases with questionable charges have been scrubbed over the past year. Not surprisingly, those still online have their content removed.
The numbers of court documents listed on China Judgments Online for 2019 criminal cases corresponding to contestable “crimes” often applied to Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities. A comparison of what was accessible in late 2019 and what is accessible today shows that the vast majority of these document listings have been removed.
|Crime (English)||Crime (Mandarin)||2019 Cases Listed in Late 2019||2019 Cases Listed in Early 2021|
|“assisting in terrorist activities”||帮助恐怖活动罪||10||3|
|“preparing to carry out terrorist activities”||准备实施恐怖活动罪||22||0|
|“propagating terrorism and extremism, and inciting terrorist activities”||宣扬恐怖主义、极端主义、煽动实施恐怖活动罪||72||3|
|“using extremism to undermine law enforcement”||利用极端主义破坏法律实施罪||3||0|
|“illegal possession of items propagating terrorism and extremism”||非法持有宣扬恐怖主义、极端主义物品罪||9||1|
|“inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”||煽动民族仇恨、民族歧视罪||224||6|
|“gathering a crowd to disturb social order”||聚众扰乱社会秩序罪||417||37|
Among the (at least) 380 removed court documents for individuals accused of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”, one is that of Alim Ehet’s. Because the content has been removed, it is not clear if this is the Alim Ehet – the Xinjiang University mathematics professor, software engineer, and founder of Uyghursoft who disappeared in mid-2018 and has been completely missing since. However, there is reason to think that it may be, as the city (Urumqi), the document timestamp (2019), and the official name spelling (there are at least 9 different ways to spell “Alim Ehet” in Mandarin) all match.
What is suspected to be a criminal verdict of Alim Ehet, a prominent Uyghur scholar and software engineer now missing for years, charged here with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” (source: https://archive.vn/NWatH). The content has not been made public, with “other reasons for the People’s Court not finding it appropriate to publish publicly online” provided as the explanation. The record, despite already having been stripped of content, was removed completely in the spring of 2020, and searching China Judgments Online for 阿力木·艾海提 (Alim Ehet) now yields no relevant results. Prior to removal, it was indicated in the search results that the case was handled by the Intermediate People’s Court in Urumqi, where the scholar Alim Ehet was based.
To date, the Xinjiang Victims Database has also documented a total of 39 individuals whose official Chinese names are known and who have been provably sentenced in Xinjiang in recent (2016-) years. Of these, only Serikzhan Adilhan has his case listed on China Judgments Online –the alleged crime financial in nature and the sentence relatively light. All of the others are conspicuously missing.
Individuals who were sentenced in 2016 or later and whose sentencing has been rigorously corroborated (in the vast majority of cases, by official sources). With the exception of one case, none have their verdicts listed on China Judgments Online. Information reported anecdotally and not readily checked is followed by an asterisk (*).
|Individual||Name in Mandarin||Charge(s)||Term||Corroboration|
|Jin Dehuai||金德怀||“separatism”||life||court verdict|
|Rozi Hemdul||肉孜·艾木都||unclear||25 years*||diplomat|
|Ablajan Bekri||阿布拉江·巴克尔||unclear||25 years||Karakash List|
|Gulshen Abbas||古丽先·阿巴斯||“participating in a terrorist organization”, “assisting in terrorist activities”, “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”||20 years||diplomat|
|Nurzada Zhumaqan||奴尔扎达·居马汉||“using superstition to undermine law enforcement”, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”||20 years||incarceration notice|
|Asqar Azatbek||阿斯哈·阿孜提别克||“espionage”, “fraud”||20 years||court verdict|
|Qaliolla Tursyn||哈力尤拉·吐尔逊||unclear||20 years*||diplomat*|
|Erkin Tursun||艾尔肯·吐尔逊||“inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”, “harboring criminals”||19 years, 10 months||Chinese government via United Nations|
|Erlan Qabden||叶尔兰·哈比登||“using extremism to undermine law enforcement”, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”||19 years||incarceration notice|
|Zhang Haitao||张海涛||“inciting subversion of state power”, “spying and providing intelligence for foreign countries”||19 years||incarceration notice|
|Serikzhan Aqan||赛尔江·阿汗||“propagating extremism”||17 years||court verdict|
|Nurlan Pioner||努尔兰·皮吾尼尔||“gathering a crowd to disturb public order”, “using extremism to undermine law enforcement”, “illegal possession of items propagating extremism and terrorism”||17 years||court verdict|
|Abdureshit Tohti||阿布都热西提·托胡提||“gathering a crowd to disturb social order”, “preparing to commit terrorist activities”||16 years, 11 months||diplomat|
|Ehmet Tohsun||艾合麦提·托克逊||“inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”, “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”||16 years, 10 months||incarceration notice|
|Mijit Gheni||米吉提·艾尼||“gathering a crowd to disturb social order”, “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”||16 years, 6 months||Chinese government via Dutch MFA|
|Turghun Hamudun||吐尔洪·阿木东||“inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”, “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”||16 years, 6 months||Chinese government via Dutch MFA|
|Memet’eli Abdureshit||麦麦提艾力·阿布都热西提||“preparing to commit terrorist activities”||15 years, 11 months||diplomat|
|Ulanbek Silampi||乌拉木拜克·斯兰皮||“propagating extremism”||15 years||incarceration notice|
|Nie Shigang||聂世岗||“assisting in terrorist activities”||15 years||court verdict|
|Zhanatbek Beksultan||加纳提别克·别克苏力旦||“propagating extremism”, “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”||15 years||incarceration notice|
|Ernar Dakesh||也里那儿·达开士||“gathering a crowd to disturb social order”*||15 years*||court verdict|
|Baisultan Yusiphan||巴依苏勒坦·玉苏汗||“inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”, “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”||15 years||incarceration notice|
|Ekber Eset||艾克拜尔·艾赛提||“inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”||15 years||diplomat|
|Memet Hemdul||买买提·艾木都||unclear||15 years*||diplomat|
|Hesenjan Qari||艾山江·卡日||“joining a terrorist organization”, “using extremism to undermine law enforcement”||14 years, 6 months||incarceration notice|
|Bagdat Akin||巴合达提·阿肯||related to “terrorism”||14 years, 6 months||appeal letter|
|Baqythan Myrzan||巴合提汗·木尔赞||“propagating extremism”||14 years||incarceration notice|
|Tajigul Qadir||塔吉古丽·卡迪尔||“preparing to commit terrorist activities”||13 years||diplomat|
|Baimurat Nauryzbek||巴依木拉提·那如孜别克||“inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”||10 years||diplomat|
|Ismayil Sidiq||依司马伊力·斯迪克||“propagating extremism”||10 years||court verdict|
|Oken Mahmet||吾肯·马合买提||“propagating terrorism and extremism, and inciting terrorist activities”||8 years, 6 months*||court website|
|Patime Ablikim||帕提玛·阿布力克木||“gathering a crowd to disturb social order”, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”||6 years, 6 months||Chinese government via Dutch MFA|
|Muhemmed’eli Tursun||买买提力·吐尔逊||“picking quarrels and provoking trouble”*||6 years*||video chat with prisoner|
|Ablikim Gheni||阿布力克木·艾尼||“gathering a crowd to disturb social order”||5 years, 6 months||Chinese government via Dutch MFA|
|Serikzhan Adilhan||塞力克江·阿德勒汗||“illegal business operations”||3 years, 6 months||court verdict|
|Adil Hamudun||阿迪力·哈米丁||“gathering a crowd to disturb social order”||3 years||Chinese government via Dutch MFA|
|Huang Shike||黄世科||“illegal use of information networks”||2 years||court verdict|
|Mehrigul Abla||米合热古力·阿布拉||“illegal possession of items propagating terrorism and extremism”||2 years||enforcement notice|
|Tashpolat Teyip||塔西甫拉提·特依拜||“bribery”||unclear||Chinese government via United Nations|
One could argue that the Chinese state has no obligation to make all of its court verdicts public in the first place. However, even if one were to accept such an argument – ignoring the accusations of genocide, the obvious lack of transparency for Xinjiang in particular, and the aforementioned removal of court documents – there still remains the blatant disregard for minimal human decency, as not even the relatives of those sentenced have been able to obtain the verdicts in the vast majority of cases (often, as in the case of Nursiman Abdureshid’s family, it has taken years for relatives abroad just to learn that their loved ones had been sentenced).
Jewlan Shirmemet campaigning for his mother’s freedom outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara, Turkey.
Which is not to say that people haven’t tried. In early-to-mid 2020, Jewlan Shirmemet, a student and tour guide in Istanbul, had a number of conversations with the Chinese consulate and embassy in Turkey, who confirmed to him that his mother, retired civil servant Suriye Tursun, had been sentenced for “assisting in terrorist activities”. At numerous instances, Jewlan demanded that the Chinese mission staff help him obtain the verdict so that he could hire a lawyer and appeal. These exchanges, which serve as an illustrative example of institutional stonewalling, went as follows:
Jewlan: Can you give me the court verdict? I want to find a lawyer. I want to find an international lawyer. Can you provide me with the verdict?
Staff: Look, there’s no need to get so agitated. The mainland has also already told us that your case may not be that severe. Or maybe it was a case where other people’s influences played a role, like being in contact with some wrong people – what I mean is, maybe you could write down whom you’ve been in contact with, starting from the last time that you left the country up until now, including when you were in Egypt before and in your current situation now.
Jewlan: There’s another thing that I want to ask: what’s my mother’s crime? I really want to understand. Can you send me my mother’s written verdict? Can you provide it to me? What is the crime?
Staff: This… We don’t really have this on our side. It’s not something we handle.
Jewlan: I want to contact my family members, and right now I also want to have my mother’s written verdict. Her written verdict. Written verdict. Can you give that to me? You said, in the e-mail…
Staff: We don’t have that either. This…
Jewlan: I’m asking you to request it from the Chinese government, from the court. This written verdict. Because I want to go look for a lawyer. I can look for one in Beijing, or look for one outside the country. I want to find a lawyer.
Staff: I feel like the more urgent thing right now… I feel like the more urgent thing right now is to first explain your own problem to the mainland, and then to talk about other things.
Jewlan: You need to provide me with the written verdict. Because each day my mom spends over there, being tormented… I know what the situation over there is like, and right now the COVID-19 situation is also extremely severe. My mom, she…
Staff: This thing… Right now, it’s definitely not a problem. That we can confirm for you. But I feel like the more pressing thing now is to first resolve your own problem. Only then can you talk about other things.
Jewlan: My request is that you provide me with my mom’s written verdict. I really must see its contents. What my mom’s criminal charge was – I really want to understand that. This is my… I feel that, for a Chinese citizen, this is an extremely normal request, right? The consulate should be able to provide me with this, right? Because the consulate is there to protect the rights of citizens who are overseas in the countries the consulates are in, right? This is my right, right?
Staff: That’s why right now the issue is your mom, who is currently in the mainland. I feel like what’s most important right now is to change the mainland’s opinion of you.
Jewlan: It is my mom who is currently in jail, who was sentenced. I really want… Because I… Don’t China’s laws also have this? The right to appeal, right? We can go to the Supreme People’s Court to appeal, right? In any case, going to the Supreme People’s Court to appeal is an extremely normal thing, a normal legal process. That’s why I want the consulate, if it really wants to help me, to ask the court for the written verdict.
Staff: To be honest, this… Right now, it’s not… Right now, it’s not us helping you. Right now, it is you needing to help yourself. First, explain your own situation clearly. Tell us about your situation first, and only then will it be possible to talk about other things.
Jewlan: I will provide you with all the information, but you also need to help me ask for the written verdict. Because I want to go find – I have already found – a lawyer. I have already found a lawyer. I have found a lawyer in Beijing and I have found a lawyer internationally: one in England. I want to appeal, so I need to see this written verdict. I think that this is an extremely normal process in Chinese law. To appeal, to refute, to go to the Supreme People’s Court and appeal, to find a lawyer – this is how the legal process works. I don’t think that this violates the law in any way. Right now, my request is also very simple.
Staff: This… You might have the right to do this, but right now we over here don’t have a way to help you appeal either…
Jewlan: No, no, no. I haven’t asked you to help me appeal. I just want the written verdict.
Staff: What we can help you with now is… You should supply us with a description of your activities and your basic situation.
Jewlan: I’m just requesting what I’m entitled to as a citizen. I don’t have any other requests.
Staff: So… I know what you mean, but there are a lot of things I need to check. First, we are a country of law, and it’s not like the family members of anyone who says their family members have been arrested… have been arrested illegally…
Jewlan: Before, I requested the written court verdict. You didn’t give it.
Jewlan: I requested a lawyer…
Staff: There are a lot of things that can be requested. We could also request a lot of things, but speaking within the legal framework…
Receiving no assistance from the Chinese mission in Turkey, Jewlan joined dozens of others in holding prolonged protests outside the Chinese consulate and embassy, as they demanded to be informed about the whereabouts and wellbeing of their relatives. Far from forthcoming, the Chinese embassy replied by publicly accusing them of being part of an organized operation to lie and spread false information.
For Muherrem Muhemmed’eli Baqi, a resident of Japan who was able to leave China in 2018, the person sentenced was his father, a farmer and Friday imam Muhemmed’eli Tursun. After being disappeared at a meeting in March 2017, Muhemmed’eli would only resurface in August, and with a 6-year term for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. As part of his efforts to have his father freed, Muherrem tried to hire a lawyer in inner China to handle the case. The latter, however, would message Muherrem to tell him that he could not obtain the court documents, as the Xinjiang lawyer(s) had made it very clear to him that the documents could not be “sent outside”.
Screenshot of an online message from an inner-China lawyer to Muherrem Muhemmed’eli Baqi, reading: “The lawyer(s) there (in Xinjiang) made it very clear to me that the case documents could not be sent outside, and not even I’m able to look at them.” (source: Muherrem Muhemmed’eli Baqi)
From China’s perspective, it is undoubtedly better that things remain this way, as the verdicts and other judicial documentation that have come to light – often through leaks, imprudence, or various surreptitious channels – reveal more lawlessness than law. It is very likely that the majority of the documents, were they made publicly available, would fail to withstand even the slightest criticism from anyone with a fundamental knowledge of China’s criminal code. The available records also confirm that obscure charges for what are misdemeanors at best are typically viewed through a draconian lens, yielding the absurdly long sentences reported by so many in the diaspora.
One behavior that now appears to have been criminalized is the appeal to intra-ethnic solidarity among non-Han groups and the resistance to Han influence, interpreted by the Xinjiang courts as “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” and often punished with the maximum (10-year) term. In one such case, obtained and published as part of the “China Cables”, Nebi Ghoja’ehmet, a Party member from Karakash County with no criminal record, was sentenced for telling his Uyghur coworkers not to curse, watch pornography, or eat food prepared by women who don’t pray, in addition to telling them that not praying would result in them “going to hell” and that “the only ones who don’t pray are the infidel Chinese”. This informal and controversial lecture – the only evidence cited – was enough to earn him the “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” crime and 10 years in prison. On the other side of Xinjiang, Ismayil Sidiq, a 53-year-old farmer who was already serving his 10-year sentence in Kuytun Prison, had 11 additional years tacked on for praying, refusing to write “thought reports”, and telling off his co-inmates with “Do Uyghurs like to snitch on other Uyghurs like this?” after having his religious behavior reported – with this one phrase being interpreted as “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”, described as “especially serious” with regard to its criminal nature, and deemed worthy of the maximum 10 years.
The same charge and 10-year prison term were also given to Baimurat Nauryzbek, an ethnic Kazakh policeman from Ghulja, for literally something that he wrote on a social-network platform 6 years earlier, in 2012.
Another apparent criminalization is the criminalization of teaching and promoting religion. In one court verdict posted on a law-related WeChat account, a Hui man named Huang Shike was given two years of prison simply for explaining the Quran and teaching others to pray in WeChat groups of over 100 people. There is no explicit mention in the document of what he actually said, let alone did, that could be interpreted as illegal, harmful, or dangerous, but nevertheless the verdict concludes that he “engaged in teaching scripture and expounding scripture in a non-religious venue, thereby disturbing the normal order of religious administration, which is of serious harm to society”. Another verdict shows how Jin Dehuai, another Hui man, was sentenced for his activities as a prominent member of the Tablighi Jamaat – an international Muslim missionary movement. The decision, a 30-page document that overrode the 7-year sentence that Jin was already serving, largely consists of the dozens of testimonies from other Jamaat members, which corroborate Jin’s alleged Jamaat activities between 2006 and 2014 – organizing conferences, organizing missionary trips inside China and abroad, and generally working to promote Islam in many places in Xinjiang. Despite there being no concrete evidence presented of Jin inciting violence, inciting counter-government activity, or displaying any coercive behavior, his cumulative actions were deemed to be “separatism”, and he was sentenced to life (with all assets confiscated).
The documents may also reveal inconsistencies and lies. On December 7, 2017, naturalized Kazakhstan citizen Asqar Azatbek went to the visa-free Korgas International Center for Boundary Cooperation on the China-Kazakhstan border and was essentially kidnapped by Chinese public security, as witnessed by his friend Oraz and as confirmed officially by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For years, there’d be no news, until his relatives – through undisclosed channels – obtained Asqar’s 2018 court verdict. The document, which finds Asqar guilty of “spying for Kazakhstan” and of “fraud”, sentences him to 20 years in prison, but makes no mention of the kidnapping whatsoever and says that he was detained by the police on suspicion of fraud in March 2018 instead (an entire three months after the actual detention). Kazakhstan’s MFA has denied the spying allegation and claimed that they have no knowledge of the sentence, saying that their diplomats in Beijing were only told that Asqar was under investigation for having “illegal dual citizenship” (despite having formally renounced his Chinese citizenship already).
Eyewitness testimonies, written accounts, and primary documents give reason to believe that general procedural violations are also myriad, as might be expected when the courts sentence five to ten times more people per year than is normal for the region.
An account that is particularly illuminating comes from late 2017 and is written by a Shanghai-based lawyer, summoned to defend a Xinjiang chicken farmer because no local lawyer dares take the case. The farmer is prosecuted for “subversion” for the hundreds of comments that he wrote in various QQ groups, and the lawyer, in taking the case, is told that he can probably have access to “most of the case files” and that, this being a subversion case, he is not allowed to pursue an innocence defense. When the lawyer asks about the legality of all this, he is told that “this is Xinjiang”.
The description of the actual trial serves as the story’s climax and illustrates a crude juxtaposition, of someone who appeals to the law and the great machine that willfully neglects it:
With the hearing started and the examination of the evidence completed, the prosecutor issued the prosecution’s statement, meticulously laying out the first set of arguments from the prosecution. I then replied with my first set of the defense’s arguments:
- First, that thoughts do not constitute a crime;
- Second, that the number of posts was far from [the stated] 1200, and if one were to remove duplicates and count according to the number of articles, the number was actually 440;
- Third, that not all of the posts were inciting subversion of state power and that many were just venting the individual’s frustration towards society, with it necessary for the purposes of the hearing that there be clear demarcation between freedom of speech, freedom of the citizen to issue criticisms and suggestions, and the act of inciting subversion;
- Fourth, that some of the posts using contemptuous language towards the country’s leaders or historical figures only constituted the act of insult of character, and did not meet the conditions for inciting subversion;
- Fifth, that the commemoration of certain historical events and the sympathy towards certain criminals, as seen in some of the posts, is an expression of one’s feelings, and that this sort of expression of one’s feelings has also not reached the basic threshold for it to be considered a crime;
- Sixth, that what the defendant opposed in his posts was our Party’s single-party monopoly on power, when in reality our country only has our Party as the leader, with other democratic parties all taking part in what is a multi-party system, and thus it cannot be a crime if the defendant’s opposition is to only one of them;
- Seventh, that with regard to the severity of the prison term, one could consult the term given to the individual surnamed Jiang in the recent incitement of subversion of state power case heard by the Changsha Intermediate Court, where Jiang had written over 30000 posts and had over 30000 followers, and was sentenced to two years by the court, while the defendant in this case has, even if we adopt the count given in the indictment, written only 1200 posts, with all of the people in the different QQ groups combined totaling less than 2000; both the number and reach are less than a tenth of Jiang’s, and the five-years-plus sentence demanded by the prosecutor is clearly abnormally heavy, and devoid of factual and legal foundations.
The prosecutor then put forth the second set of arguments, underscoring the special political circumstances and the backdrop of preserving stability in Xinjiang, thereby finding strict punishment necessary in order to guarantee border-region stability. I then replied that, even with preserving stability as the aim, one still had to preserve stability within the legal framework, and could not abandon the basic term-determination principles and the requirements of equilibrium in the rule of law.
When, following the court’s final statements, the presiding judge said that the court would adjourn for five minutes, I felt a pang of disheartenment – had they already decided things in advance? Five minutes later, the judge resumed court, fixing the relevant evidence and saying that this was an important case that would require the hearing committee to discuss and come to a decision, with the date for the next court session to be announced at a later time.
With the hearing concluded, I went to have a short exchange with the judge.
“If you think that a person like him needs to be sentenced to 5 years or more,” I said, “then you are seriously overestimating him.”
“You don’t understand the situation we have here,” the judge told me. “The task of preserving stability is a very difficult one.”
Another worrying phenomenon that has been reported is the holding of trials in dubious places, where rather than take the defendant to a courthouse, the authorities have brought the “court” to the defendant instead.
One such variation has been to hold the trials inside the pre-trial detention centers. In inner China, this occurrence has only been reported in the past year, in such provinces as Shanxi, Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Inner Mongolia, and has been typically presented as an exotic consequence of the COVID pandemic, and usually for cases with many defendants. In Xinjiang, however, such trials have already been documented in as early as 2017, with a listing of hearings from a court website in Shayar County suggesting that they may – again – be intended for the typical “sensitive” crimes, with the “terrorism” and “inciting ethnic hatred” case trials taking place in the pre-trial detention center while trials for other charges, including rape, were held at the courthouse. In mid-2019, relatives of Serikzhan Adilhan, now sentenced for “illegal business operations”, also reported attending his first hearing at the Ghulja City Pre-Trial Detention Center, with only the second trial (following appeal) held at the courthouse.
More egregious have been the sham “camp trials” reported both in official documentation and by multiple ex-detainees. A phenomenon that seems to have been largely limited to late 2018, these were brief sessions that took place while the individuals were still being detained in the region’s “vocational centers”.
“I had actually been given a 5-year prison term. It was not a formal court hearing, and nobody from my family attended. They just got together and informed me that I was given 5 years. Later, I learned that my family had been told that I was given 15.” – Baqyt’ali Nur, detained from October 2017 to November 2018.
“Later, around October (2018), they started to hold court hearings and to give out prison terms. I was called to a court hearing also. Inside, there were desks arranged in a U shape, with two representatives from the neighborhood administration and police station on the left, two representatives from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission and from State Security in the middle, and with the court representatives on the right. The inmate, handcuffed, would sit on the stool in the middle. And then the process began.
They started by turning on the camera. Then, the neighborhood-administration representative stood up and said: ‘Erbaqyt Otarbai is from the such-and-such neighborhood and, according to the IJOP platform, has been confirmed to have used WhatsApp, and is thus given a 7-year sentence.’ After that, a person sitting in the middle section said that, thanks to the Party, the punishment given was a relatively light one, and then asked me to sign a document. I signed without even looking at what I was signing. They even asked me to have a look, but I just told them it was pointless. Then, the representative from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission stood up and read the verdict out loud, before informing me that one copy of the document would be sent to my family.
While being taken back to my room by two auxiliary police officers, I was suddenly called by one of the cadres, who told me that my family had come to see me. They had called my parents for the court hearing. My mom wasn’t wearing a headscarf – she told me that she wasn’t allowed to. She was crying, and I calmed her down, saying that 7 years would pass as if they were 7 days.” – Erbaqyt Otarbai, detained from August 2017 to December 2018.
“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 [‘mouth opener’], 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.” – Rahima Senbai, detained from October 2017 to October 2018.
“After some time, they also started requiring us to write about and confess our wrongdoings. Later, there’d be a court hearing in the camp, and we’d be accused of different ‘crimes’. For example, I was told that I had breached such-and-such a clause of the telecommunications law (Kazakh: telegraf zangy). That was around September (2018). They didn’t give us prison terms after the hearing, however. Instead, they just divided us into groups, and I was put in the ‘regular class’ (普班, the lightest form).” – Tabysqan Magrupqan, detained from March 2018 to December 2018.
“One day, she would be sentenced to 3 years in prison. After being summoned, she found her husband and another man who had worked in Kazakhstan standing in the corridor – the two of them standing facing the wall with their hands raised and pressed against it. They were then all brought into the room where people were being given prison terms. There, they had a long verdict listing their ‘crimes’ read out to them from a thick book, which Zagi describes as a terrifying process, with them asking her at the end if she had any objections. Among the accusations against her was that she had visited Kazakhstan 16 times, had WhatsApp installed, and had been sharing a single SIM card with her husband. They were told that, according to the law, their sentence could have ranged anywhere from 3 to 5 years, but that the Party had been generous and decided to save them from a longer sentence.” – from the account of Zagi Qurmanbai, detained from February 2018 to December 2018.
To date, the most detailed and thorough account of such a “trial” is due to Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a French resident who has published a book about her year and a half in detention, of which a chapter is dedicated to the trial alone. In it, she talks of her and three others being led from the cell to another building in the camp compound, where she finds her sister in attendance, and is hastily sentenced to 7 years:
“None of this resembled a trial. In a trial, you’d have a court room that looked like a court room, rather than an interrogation room at a police station. You’d have a judge who looked like a judge – not dressed in a military uniform, like the pudgy little man across from me was. The benches would be filled with an audience of people, distantly or closely linked to the defendant: relatives, friends, acquaintances. They would be called to the witness stand to testify. Here, the black, plastic benches were empty, and there was no stand intended for allowing some third party to take part. My sister was somewhere to the side, wiping her nose, and apart from her irritating sniffling would make no sound, save for just after my sentence had been pronounced, when she thanked the judge and the Chinese Communist Party for having ‘given me the chance to repent’. Someone had dictated the words to her, of course. Lodged behind a video camera, some guy was filming the room.
In a normal trial, you’d also have a lawyer at your side. Someone to act as an intermediary between the judge and the client, someone to defend you. The shield to protect you against the judicial machinery that was unleashed on you. Next to me, I only had my instructor, her face expressionless and her mouth zipped shut. For the nine minutes that my trial lasted, she did not say a word. Lastly, in a real trial, you’d have a defendant who actually had something to defend – that’s to say, a person who had committed acts capable of being judged and condemned. I, however, was innocent.
No, this trial was not a trial but, as to be expected, everyone acted as if it were: the policeman-slash-judge, his lackeys (seated to his right and left, also in uniform), and the instructors who must have taken pride in playing lawyer, raising an eyebrow whenever the judge started to speak, and replying with a superficial smile to the worried looks from their clients. And finally, the four of us, the accused, ensnared in a judicial system that was Kafkaesque and illegal, where justice did not exist and in which, as was all too obvious to us, it was not a matter of us being judged for our acts but sentenced systematically for who we were: Uyghurs.”
A still of a “twice inform and once announce” trial session, as shown in the original CCTV propaganda video about the camps that was released in October 2018. Included are representatives of the court (法院, bottom left) and procuratorate (检察院, top left), with the “informee” (被告知人) and his relative (家属) seated on the opposite side (bottom right).
Officially, these sessions are known as “twice inform and once announce” (两告知一宣讲), and appear to reflect Xinjiang-wide policy, with accounts now documented in northern (Karamay, Ili, Tacheng, Altay), central (Turpan, Urumqi, Changji), and southern (Hotan) parts of the region. Presented by state media as serving to “inform the student about the nature of involvement in terrorist activities, inform the student about the nature of involvement in extremist activities, and announce the Party and government’s policy of showing lenience in accordance with the law”, the sessions are shown to possess legal character but to ultimately leave the defendant (“informee”) feeling both repentant and grateful.
That “informees” are given sentences is not mentioned in the state-media report, but is readily observed in the local police records from Urumqi (previously featured in The Intercept). Here, one sees slightly rawer descriptions of the “twice inform and once announce” process as applied to dozens of camp detainees, with the standard protocol almost always the same:
- the relative(s) of the detainee goes to the camp in the company of someone from the local neighborhood administration,
- the “twice inform and once announce” session is held,
- the detainee is “provisionally sentenced” (预判) to 2-5 years and signs the relevant form,
- the detainee expresses repentance and gratitude,
- the relative(s) expresses gratitude,
- the relative(s) goes back home,
- local authorities make note of any “irregular” emotions displayed by the defendant or their relatives, with local neighborhood administration staff instructed to visit the relatives frequently to check on how they are coping with the news of the sentence (and to report any “irregularities”).
In some, more detailed, entries, one finds close similarities with the descriptions provided by some of the eyewitnesses, hundreds of kilometers away:
“At 10:30 AM on November 11, 2018, the West Xinmin Street Neighborhood Administation cadre Zhang Renjie and neighborhood administration worker Dilnigar Enwer led Abliz Abla and Hezret’eli Abliz, relatives of a ‘three kinds’ person [someone in camp, custody, or prison] under the neighborhood’s jurisdiction, to the vocational education center to receive the ‘twice inform and once announce’.
The ‘twice inform and once announce’ formally started at around 11:30 AM. During the informing, the four comrades from the procuratorate were seated on the rostrum. Another eight people – four workers from the neighborhood administration and the ‘three kinds’ person and his relatives – sat facing each other. The entire process was recorded on film.
The West Xinmin Street Neighborhood ‘three kinds’ person Anayit Abliz was told that he was being given a three-year term for having used Zapya and VPN software in 2017. In replying to the verdict, Anayit Abliz admitted to using Zapya, but said that he had not used a VPN, that no proof of him doing so had been produced, and that he did not accept this judgment and objected to it. Following mediation from his relatives, Anayit Abliz finally signed the notification sheet.
After hearing the contents of the informing session, the relatives of the ‘three kinds’ person, Abliz Abla and Hezret’eli Abliz, remained emotionally stable. Nor did they disclose to Anayit Abliz that his mother, Ayshem Osman, was taken for education. No other irregularities noticed.”
Many of the charges, such as the use of Zapya or a VPN, are obviously not actual crimes. In addition to this, the reasons for why someone was detained and why they were sentenced often do not match, or display significant leaps of interpretation.
Individuals sentenced in the “twice inform and once announce” sessions (trials) held at the camps in Urumqi’s Dabancheng and Shuimogou districts in late 2018. (Source: Urumqi police records, obtained by journalist Yael Grauer and written about in The Intercept.)
|Name, age, gender||Initial detention reason (date)||Camp sentence reason (date)||Provisional term (years)|
|Hamut Abdurehim, 46, M||“being an untrustworthy person” (May 3, 2017)||“illegally expounding scripture” (Oct. 31, 2018)||2|
|Ablikim Abdu’eli, 41, M||“endangering state security” (May 3, 2017)||“illegally expounding scripture” (Oct. 31, 2018)||2|
|Hekim Alim, 45, M||“gathering a crowd to disturb public order (July 5 incident)” (May 30, 2017)||“illegally expounding scripture” (Nov. 1, 2018)||2|
|Turghun Eziz, 41, M||“illegally studying scripture” (May 3, 2017)||“illegally expounding scripture” (Nov. 1, 2018)||2|
|Paruq Omer, 30, M||“taking part in the July 5 demonstrations” (May 23, 2017)||“illegally expounding scripture” (Nov. 2, 2018)||2|
|Ezizjan Memet’imin, 22, M||not stated (April 22, 2018)||“illegally studying scripture (with his grandfather, when he was young)” (Nov. 3, 2018)||2|
|Imamidin Memet, 21, M||“three illegals: illegal religion [religious activity], illegal propaganda materials, illegal dissemination online” (May 20, 2017)||“having relatives abroad, having relatives in pre-trial detention, and not obeying the neighborhood administration” (Nov. 3, 2018)||3|
|Buhliche Hamut, 52, F||“being relatives with people of unknown whereabouts, being relatives with members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, and being among those forbidden to go abroad” (May 20, 2017)||“having 3 more children than allowed to by the birth policy” (Nov. 7, 2018)||3|
|Elijan Tursun, 25, M||“downloading Zapya, having been in close contact with people in pre-trial detention, and theft” (Sep. 25, 2017)||“theft” (Nov. 4, 2018)||4|
|Memet Niyaz, 56, M||“downloading Zapya” (Mar. 13, 2018)||“downloading illegal software” (Nov. 4, 2018)||3|
|Ezimetjan Omer, 29, M||“having a double household registration” (Sep. 27, 2017)||“having a double household registration and violating national security” (Nov. 5, 2018)||3|
|Yusup Turghun, 22, M||“having been in close contact with people in pre-trial detention” (Oct. 1, 2017)||“harboring criminals” (Nov. 5, 2018)||3|
|Qasimjan Qasimov, 40, M||“being an untrustworthy person” (Apr. 22, 2018)||“violating the law on December 30, 1996” (Nov. 6, 2018)||3|
|Memet Qadir, 46, M||“being an out-of-contact person endangering safety” (Sep. 15, 2017)||not stated (Nov. 6, 2018)||3|
|Tuniyaz Emet, 52, M||“being an untrustworthy person endangering safety” (July 13, 2017)||“disobeying the grassroots organizations’ administration” (Nov. 7, 2018)||3|
|Gheyret Memet, 34, M||“being suspected of having had forged documents made” (Sep. 6, 2017)||“being suspected of having had forged documents made” (Nov. 8, 2018)||2|
|Mewlan Memet’imin, 31, M||“downloading Zapya” (Mar. 14, 2017)||“disturbing social order and illegally downloading and logging into a terrorist website based outside China” (Nov. 8, 2018)||5|
|Elshat Turdi, 21, M||“being in contact with people outside China” (Nov. 17, 2017)||not stated (Nov. 8, 2018)||3|
|Qurban Tomur, 46, M||“going off the network” (May 2, 2017)||“illegally studying religion” (Nov. 9, 2018)||2|
|Hanzadem Ela, 55, F||“being a relative of someone in pre-trial detention” (Oct. 17, 2017)||“being a relative of someone in pre-trial detention and protecting and harboring criminals” (Nov. 11, 2018)||2|
|Yaqup Yunus, 38, M||“having a double household registration” (Oct. 2017)||“violating household registration rules and illegally studying religion” (Nov. 11, 2018)||4|
|Eziz Tursun, 47, M||“illegal business operations” (Sep. 2017)||“illegal business operations and disturbing communal order” (Nov. 11, 2018)||3|
|Patigul Memet, 43, F||“having a double household registration and being suspected of illegal religious activities” (May 11, 2017)||“violating household registration rules and illegally expounding scripture” (Nov. 12, 2018)||4|
|Kewserjan Kerim, 25, M||“downloading Zapya” (June 29, 2017)||“downloading Zapya and possessing illegal objects” (Nov. 12, 2018)||3|
|Abdusalam Pettar, 33, M||“being an untrustworthy person” (Sep. 26, 2017)||“attending illegal underground religious activities” (Nov. 13, 2018)||3|
|Muhemmed Ablehet, 36, M||“being considered a focus person by national security and being suspected of involvement in the July 5 incident” (Apr. 16, 2017)||“illegal religious activities and violating the birth policy by having too many children” (Nov. 14, 2018)||3|
|Rahman Hushtar, 37, M||“being a suspect in a national security case” (May 3, 2017)||“disrupting public service” (Nov. 14, 2018)||3|
|Memet’imin Baqi, 41, M||“being an untrustworthy person” (May 14, 2017)||“disrupting fundamental community order” (Nov. 26, 2018)||3|
|Memetsalih Metqasim, 43, M||“gathering a crowd to disturb social order” (Dec. 5, 2017)||“harboring others and violating the birth policy by having too many children” (Nov. 30, 2018)||5|
|Abla Tursun, M||not stated||“praying at a non-religious venue” (Dec. 7, 2018)||3|
Cases of refusing to sign the verdict seem relatively rare. In one instance, as given above, this appears to lead to pressure from the relatives themselves. In another, also from the Urumqi records, refusal to sign led to the “twice inform and once announce” being rescheduled for another day, with increased surveillance and home visits for the detainee’s relatives. In a case from the Karakash List, the neighborhood administration notes that the detainee did not repent during the session and recommends continued detention:
“The neighborhood administration’s evaluation: during the ‘twice inform and once announce’, this person did not admit to the reason that got him sent to training, and only admitted to it after the head of the neighborhood administration made multiple trips to the training center to educate him. His thinking is stubborn, and the neighborhood administration recommends that he remain in training.”
Sometimes, it also appears that the result of the “twice inform and once announce” was the detainee being “forgiven” altogether, as evidenced in a letter home from Mehmud Muhemmet, a resident of Turpan.
“Let me explain to you all why I’m undergoing education at this training school. For illegally receiving [religious] instruction from my father in 1987, I should have been sentenced to a punishment of 1-3 years based on Paragraph 14 of Article 120 of the country’s penal code. When a judge from the district judicial department and the school’s leaders held a ‘twice inform and once announce’ meeting and announced that they would be pardoning this crime, I was overfilled with happiness and cried tears of joy. After all, didn’t our great and generous Party say that they would, in their loving kindness, open these training centers to quickly wash clean the poison that bad-intentioned people had planted in the victimized common folk, returning us to our families soon after?” – Mehmud Muhemmet, in a letter written to relatives from camp.
Though ostensibly illegal, it is still not clear what the actual formal legal weight and consequences – if any – of these camp sentences has been, especially given how the eyewitnesses who have testified about them were released in late 2018 or early 2019 and ultimately allowed to leave China. For the others, there has yet to be a victim documented or testified for as actually serving out one of the lighter (2- to 9-year) terms given while at camp, though two eyewitnesses have reported camp detainees whose sentences were 10 years or longer being transferred to formal prisons (cf., the case of Zhiger Toqai).
In Kashgar, where some villages have been documented to have over 15% of their populations detained, there have also been anecdotal accounts of court hearings being skipped altogether. In one case, a resident of Yengisar County’s Saghan Municipality spoke to Radio Free Asia directly and told of how five people had come to his home to verbally inform the family that his brother had been given a 10-year sentence. In the letter allegedly sent to Radio Free Asia in September 2018 by a cadre based in Kashgar, the writer talks of farmers in one village being gathered in a large hall in front of the village government office, in January 2017, and told to “find what their problems were”, prompting a number of written “confessions” that were then fingerprinted by the confessing party and used as evidence against them, with some being arrested and their families being notified of the verdict later. While these reports require additional corroboration, they are not out of accord given the better documented phenomena of the sham trials (discussed above), the aforementioned unavailability of verdicts, and the immense number of people sentenced in recent years. The case of Ismayil Sidiq, who, judging by his court verdict, was arrested on June 19, 2017 and sentenced by a Yengisar court just five days later, partially corroborates that such “expedited” judicial processes are not inconceivable.
Finally, one cannot question the legitimacy of Xinjiang’s judicial system without questioning the legitimacy of the “investigation” that precedes the trial process. For most detainees, this means time spent in a pre-trial detention center (看守所), which as previously noted have the reputation of being the worst form of detention – owing not only to cramped and unsanitary conditions but also to the fact that they bring investigation and detention together, with the police organs in charge of the detention center also in charge of finding proof of the detainee’s guilt. One apparent consequence of this streamlining is the resort to threats, mistreatment, and torture when evidence cannot be found otherwise, or when it simply does not exist. While the problem is not unique to Xinjiang (pre-trial detention centers generally have a terrible reputation all over China), it deserves highlighting in Xinjiang in particular given, again, the scale of the incarcerations. As evidenced by both satellite documentation and construction tenders, many pre-trial detention centers have also seen significant expansion in recent years.
A relatively early and high-profile example of intentional mistreatment in pre-trial detention is that of Ilham Tohti, who was arrested in Beijing in January 2014 and transferred to the Autonomous Region Pre-Trial Detention Center in Urumqi just a day or two later. According to his lawyers, the well-known Minzu University professor was denied food for over a week on two occasions, was shackled, was denied outdoor time outside the cell, and was kept in custody with people charged with drug-related crimes, fraud, rape, robbery, and murder, despite the center also holding a fair number of people detained on the suspicion of financial crimes. Over a year later, the same detention center would become home to Zhang Haitao, a Han resident of Xinjiang detained for writing critically online about the local policies and the Chinese Communist Party, to later be sentenced to 19 years in prison. In his appeal letter, dated January 2017, Zhang explicitly challenges the fact that his own testimony was used against him, which he calls “illegal evidence” obtained “through torture”.
In recounting his experiences from over a year spent in various detention centers in Kashgar and Urumqi in 2013 and 2014, linguistic-rights activist Abduweli Ayup has also mentioned repeated beatings, torture, and threats intended to make him confess to his “crimes” (presumably separatism, for his initiative to open Uyghur-language kindergartens in different parts of Xinjiang). Abduweli refused to do so.
Xinjiang incarceration survivor Omer Bekri, a few days before his detention (March 2017) and not long after the release (late 2017).
As may be expected, the recent years and the coming of Chen Quanguo do not appear to have made the pre-trial detention centers any more humane. Kazakhstan citizen Omer Bekri (Bekali), the first eyewitness to go public about his experiences, was accused of assisting in terrorism and “endangering state security”, and spent around 7 months in the Karamay City Pre-Trial Detention Center, where he claims to have lost 40 kilograms and to have spent the entire time in chains and shackles, with the exception of the few hours during which Kazakhstan diplomats visited him. After being released on bail, he was transferred to a nearby camp for 2-3 weeks, which he suspects was done to let him recover before being allowed to leave for Kazakhstan, as the camp conditions were better.
Similar claims were echoed by another Kazakhstan citizen, Gulbahar Jelilova, a businesswoman who spent over a year in multiple detention centers in Urumqi, which she says were overcrowded and unsanitary, enforced a starvation diet, and led to some people losing their mind. Erbaqyt Otarbai, who spent over three months at the Tacheng City detention center before being transferred to a camp, recalls being beaten multiple times, being shackled, and having his weight fall from 97 to 71 kilograms, with the camp conditions being significantly better. For Tursynbek Qabi, the relatively short week of police custody in an underground detention center led to a burst eardrum after allegedly being hit on the head for drinking the tap water that he was washing up with. In the case of Nurlan Pioner, prolonged pre-trial detention stripped the state-sanctioned imam and United Front representative of both his body mass and mental faculties. In recounting the trial, his sister-in-law, Sholpan, recalled that he had aged dramatically, was gaunt and could no longer walk, and had his pants stained with urine, with no recognition on his face when she called out his name.
More recently, in early 2020, Taobao model Merdan Ghappar wrote, in a series of chat messages, of his time in a detention center in Kucha during the start of the COVID pandemic – where he also recalled overcrowding, violence, horrible sanitation and diet, and screaming from the interrogation room on the first floor.
Topping these accounts are the allegations of death in police custody, some of which are corroborated. In early June 2018, Aytursun Eli – a 34-year-old tour guide in Kashgar, and previously praised for her work – was summoned by the local police. Five days later, her mother was brought to a local hospital and shown her daughter’s body, with authorities allegedly claiming that she had had a medical condition and was “unable to cope with being questioned”. In 2017, Yasinjan Memtimin and Abdusalam Memet, both students at the Al-Azhar Islamic University in Egypt, returned to their homes in Bayingolin Prefecture and were arrested, with a local official confirming that they died while in custody.
Perhaps the most insightful direct account of pre-trial detention in current Xinjiang – and of how it colludes with the present judicial system – is due to Bagdat Akin, another Al-Azhar student who, like Yasinjan, Abdusalam, and many others, was forced to return to Xinjiang in 2017 and was promptly arrested. In his five-page handwritten appeal letter – written after over two years in detention, a closed trial and 14-year sentence, and a failed first appeal – Bagdat describes in detail the tactics used by the police during his pre-trial detention and investigation.
Specifically, he focuses on the period from May 20, 2017 to June 9, 2017, when he was taken by the Koktogai County police on the day of his return to China and interrogated for the entire 20 days. In his appeal, Bagdat accuses the police of torturing him, both by hitting him with various objects and depriving him of sleep. He accuses them of threatening to beat his relatives, and of torturing his wife in the close vicinity so that Bagdat could hear her screaming. At one point, he writes, he was told by the police that, as this was the time of the “Strike Hard” campaign, “no one would bother if they beat me to death then and there”. Unable to withstand the torture, he had no choice but to cooperate with the police and to make up a story about how he joined alleged terrorist groups while in Egypt:
“When they asked me to identify certain locations for incidents that they claimed had occurred, the locations I gave them were made up. Even though the responses concerning the locations of the school where I studied and where I lived were true, others, like the East Turkistan Terrorist Organization’s main office – the place I ‘joined’ – were made up. There are absolutely no such places.
There’s no evidence that I ever joined a terrorist organization. I was forced to admit that I studied with fifteen Uyghur guys at the terrorist training center, but in reality, it was just people that I knew while I was studying there. I gave the names of people I knew to avoid confusing myself. Each time I gave the police a name, they would ask me for a description of what they looked like. If I got confused, they would beat me up, and so I made up a lot of people. If these people had been real, then maybe some other person would have been arrested and would have confessed to my being in the same organization. But there’s absolutely no such person. It’s all made up.”
As with the aforementioned case of Asqar Azatbek, there is a period of several months during which Bagdat was in detention without officially being so – after the 20 days of torture, he was brought to the Koktogai County Pre-Trial Detention Center, while the official detention only took place on August 25 (over three months after the actual arrest). Bagdat writes that there was no record of what transpired over the first three months, and it was only then, in August, that he was given a medical examination, with the doctors testifying that there were no signs of torture (his wounds having had almost three months to heal). Also on that day, writes Bagdat, the police took him to a filmed interrogation and once more used his relatives as hostages, saying that they would release his father and sister if he cooperated with them, but would continue to hold his wife as collateral for further cooperation. Consequently, Bagdat was forced to say on camera what the police had instructed him to say.
The conclusion of the appeal letter reads like a final, desperate plea:
“I wish for the High Court to review my appeal once more, make a fair judgment, and distinguish between black and white, finding out the truth and making a just decision for my case. I trust that our country’s legal system is just. I believe that it will not punish innocent people.”
But it has, with relatives abroad reporting that Bagdat is now serving his term at the Xin’an Prison in Shawan County. Though, they say, the term has been halved – an alleged result of their public appeals. Presumably “in accordance with the law”.
Bagdat Akin’s grandmother, appealing for him at the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights office in Almaty, Kazakhstan (August 2019).
Note: An earlier version of this article cited examples of cases where the defendants were accused of financing and/or assisting terrorist activities (Article 120.1 of the criminal code) for sending money to relatives abroad, in most cases prior to 2015. It was argued that this was an illegal application of the law on the grounds that it retroactively applied law that was introduced in late 2015 (the Ninth Amendment), as was argued by the lawyers in one of the cases. Having reviewed this in more detail, the author has concluded that this is not sufficient to establish illegal application of the law, technically speaking, as the charge of financing terrorist activities in Article 120.1 had already been introduced two decades earlier, with the Ninth Amendment adding other charges. Consequently, discussion of the three cases where this charge was raised has been removed.
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