Authorities in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region have sentenced 17 ethnic minority Uyghurs to between six months and seven years in prison after they took part in a mass protest over the shooting death of a teenager by police, according to the young man’s mother.
The 17 had been part of a group of 70 relatives and neighbors detained in mid-April for publicly demonstrating against the police killing that month of 17-year-old Abdulbasit Ablimit after he ran a red light on his motorcycle in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Kelpin (Keping) county.
Ablimit’s mother Aminem told RFA’s Uyghur Service that more than 40 of the detainees had been released after one month of a police investigation, but were later re-arrested along with several others in the wake of a May 22 bombing in the region's capital Urumqi, which killed 31 people and injured 90.
Authorities informed Kelpin county residents earlier this month that 17 of the detainees would be brought to court “in the near future” in an open trial on unspecified charges related to the protest, but Aminem said that on July 16 they suddenly announced that the group had been sentenced.
“Recently, 17 detainees—including my two brothers and other relatives—were taken to a ‘closed court’ in Kelpin, but the exact decision was not announced to the public,” she said.
“From what I know, none of the detainees acknowledged having committed any offenses, but the authorities convicted them of crimes against the state.”
According to Aminem, two people were sentenced to seven years in prison, four to six years, and “several” others to five years.
Her two brothers were ordered to serve three years in jail while four others were given two-year terms.
“Several others” were to be imprisoned between six months and two years.
She said that the residents of Kelpin had sent several petitions to both the prefectural and regional government about her son’s death, but that regional authorities had given county-level officials the right to deal with the case as they saw fit.
The county police chief and chief judge, both of whom are majority Han Chinese, were directly responsible for the detentions of more than 100 people and the “harsh” sentences for the 17 in the aftermath of the incident, Aminem said, adding that both had since been moved by prefectural authorities to positions in different locations.
One of the 17 who were sentenced had been handed the jail term “just because he loudly cursed the head of the Kelpin county government” during the April 13 demonstration, in which up to 500 Uyghurs had marched, carrying Ablimit's body, to the county office to protest the police shooting.
“I remember that the protesters were blocked by the armed police halfway to the office that day. Hurriyet, the Uyghur head of the county government, arrived there with her administrative staff. I grasped her leg and cried,” Aminem said.
“One man among the protesters shouted the word ‘bitch’. Nobody initially knew who had cursed, but someone told Hurriyet that it was him. Now, everyone is surprised that the man who cursed the county head was sentenced to six years in prison just because he shouted at her.”
Aminem said that most of the detained, including the 17 who were sentenced, are farmers from Kelpin’s Yurchi township whose families—many with small children and elderly parents—rely on agriculture to survive.
“Since they were detained, there is nobody to take care of their families and their land. My two brothers also have small children and several mu (one-sixth of an acre) of land … I went to the county office several times and requested that they release the detained people,” she said.
“I told them that I no longer plan to petition about my dead son. He is already dead. I have no more grievances. I said that I would rather stay in jail with my two children instead of the detained and sentenced people because they are innocent, and they have children and families.”
“However, the county office would not listen to me and the security personnel forcibly removed me from the premises.”
Aminem said that the morning after her last visit to the county office, police brought her to the county detention center and held her for about 24 hours.
“A police officer threatened me saying, ‘I’m warning you to stay at your house and keep silent. Don’t make any trouble for us. If you don’t listen, we will arrest you whenever we want to. Maybe the rest of the lives of you and your two children will be spent in jail. The daily routine of Kelpin county will go on without you.’”
“The police set up a video camera on my door. Now nobody, not even my neighbors, dare to knock. People around us live in fear. I won’t let my younger son go to the bazaar by motorcycle. He is fourteen. Since my elder son was shot by police, I fear that they might shoot him too.”
Chinese state media have claimed that Ablimit was shot after he sped past two consecutive security checkpoints and clashed with police officers, but friends who were with him on the day of the incident debunked the claim.
Ablimit's friends had told RFA that he and several others were traveling on separate motorcycles after visiting another friend at the Kelpin county bazaar when police fired at him about three kilometers (nearly two miles) after he whizzed past a red traffic light.
Aminem told RFA in April that police had seized Ablimit’s body from the family and buried him in a secret place following the mass protests outside government offices.
Ablimit’s death was the latest fatal shooting involving Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have intensified a sweeping security crackdown.
Around 200 people have died in unrest in the region in the past year or so, the government says.
Many Uyghurs complain that they are subject to political, cultural, and religious repression for opposing Chinese rule in the resource-rich region.
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.