Dozens of ethnic Uyghurs from a small village in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, including several sets of siblings, have been swept up in a recent crackdown on “illegal religious activities” after they attended lectures by unsanctioned imams, according to local officials.
At least 52 Uyghurs in Tomosteng township’s No. 2 village, in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture’s Yarkand (Shache) county, have been arrested under related charges, the 140-household village’s party secretary Ablet Hekim told RFA’s Uyghur Service in an interview earlier this week.
Of those arrests, 39 were the result of a “recent” sweep by local authorities, Hekim said, adding that 35 are now in jail and the remaining four—all of whom are “unofficial imams” that the state does not recognize—have been sent for “political reeducation.”
The other 13 have been serving sentences “since previous sweeps during the 2000s,” according to the party secretary.
“This week we have handed down verdicts for 13 out of the 35 [now held in jail] and delivered the official notices to their families, door to door,” Hekim said.
Sentences for the 13 ranged from two-and-a-half to 10 years in prison.
“The 35 listened to ‘illegal religious sermons’ at least two times, because we usually only warn one-time listeners and let them go,” he said.
According to Hekim, the sermons did not contain any sensitive references to “dividing the country” or anti-government rhetoric often linked to unsanctioned religious activities.
“They were sentenced simply because they had listened to sermons by the unofficial imam Abdukerim at an unauthorized venue [outside of a government sanctioned-mosque],” he said.
Hekim provided RFA with a list of all 35 Uyghurs held amid the crackdown, as well as their ages.
Among the 35, three women—Buhelish Nur, Heyrinsa Ehmet and Patima Seyittursun—were punished for “inviting people to attend” the sermons, he said.
At least five sets of siblings were jailed as part of the recent sweep, including brothers Ahmat, Tursun and Imin Zayit, as well as sister and brother Nurimangul and Memet Talip.
“Ahmat Zayit’s family has no one of working age left at home, so there is no one maintaining their fields,” he Hekim said.
“His kids have been taken in by his nephew’s family.”
Report of arrest
RFA obtained confirmation of the 52 arrests in No. 2 village while investigating a report published last week by exile Uyghur website Hoylam.com, which claimed that a 73-year-old Uyghur woman named Helchihan Hoshur was detained after making disparaging comments about Chinese policies during a “self-criticism” session in Tomosteng township’s neighboring No. 7 village.
Party secretaries from three different villages in Tomosteng township, including No. 3 village chief Qembernisa Hashim, were unable to confirm Hoshur’s detention.
“We do not have anybody like that—all the detainees in our village are males,” Hashim told RFA, without providing details about the detainees there.
“We would have recognized her, since we conduct a lot of political educational work with her family members.”
RFA was unable to confirm the identities of the male detainees from No. 7 village or the reason for their arrests.
China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames Uyghur extremists for terrorist attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.