An ethnic minority imam in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang has failed to reappear following the end of his jail sentence handed down a year ago for "engaging in illegal religious activities," sources in the region told RFA on Wednesday.
Nurjan Mehmet, a Kazakh imam from Xinjiang's Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, was handed the sentence by a court in Ili's Nileke county after a period in criminal detention.
Sources said that he has yet to return home or contact family or friends since his expected release date on July 31, however.
"Nurjan was arrested in August last year, and they said they would release him this year, but they haven't done so," a Kazakh source in the region said.
The source said Nurjan was detained after a Muslim couple went to the civil affairs bureau to register their marriage, and were asked if they had also had a traditional Muslim "nikah" wedding ceremony.
They admitted they had, and Nurjan was arrested for it, the source said, adding that unconfirmed reports have emerged that he is now serving a four-year jail term rather than the one year originally handed down.
In March, Xinjiang authorities fired an ethnic Uyghur official for holding her wedding ceremony at home according to Islamic traditions instead of at a government-sanctioned venue.
Salamet Memetimin, the communist party secretary for Chaka township’s Bekchan village, in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Chira (Cele) county, was among 97 officials recently charged with disciplinary violations, according to an April 10 report by the state-run Hotan Daily newspaper.
Local residents said the woman was relieved of her duties for taking her "nikah" marriage vows in her own home.
"I think this may be a local policy unique to Xinjiang," the source said. "You have to first apply for a marriage certificate and then carry out the Islamic practice of nikah."
"The imams aren't allowed to perform nikah if there is no marriage certificate, or they will be sent to prison."
New rules for Kazakhs
But he said Nurjan should still have been released by now.
"The verdict and judgement said the sentence would run until the end of the July, but they haven't let him out," he said.
In a related development, authorities in Ili's Xinyuan county announced five new rules aimed at Kazakhs at the end of July.
The announcement called on Kazakhs to report anyone wearing traditional Islamic clothing or growing a beard, any strangers or recently arrived vehicles in town, and any contact with distant relatives.
It said anyone bad-mouthing the ruling Chinese Communist Party or government officials, or inciting local people to oppose the government must also be reported "immediately."
Similar rules have appeared in other parts of the region, local sources told RFA.
Chinese authorities have detained dozens of ethnic Kazakhs in recent weeks amid an ongoing security crackdown targeting anyone with ties beyond China's borders.
Sources in China and neighboring Kazakhstan say that the China-based Kazakh ethnic minority, many of whom are Muslims, have recently been targeted in a similar manner to the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, with a campaign of detentions for anyone with overseas connections.
Chinese authorities have lately issued orders for ethnic Kazakh Chinese nationals to hand in their passports and Kazakh green cards in some parts of Xinjiang, although sources said some local governments have since returned the documents to their owners.
Official figures show that there are around 1.5 million Kazakhs in China, mostly concentrated in and around the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture.
China has previously welcomed Kazakhs who wished to relocate from Kazakhstan, but now many Kazakhs with Chinese nationality are heading back in the other direction, with their numbers peaking at nearly 38,000 in 2006.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.