UPDATED at 1:11 P.M. ET on 2020-01-06
A prominent Uyghur historian who disappeared in 2017 has been confirmed jailed in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to his U.S.-based daughter, who said his sentence likely stemmed from a book he published three years earlier.
Iminjan Seydin, 54, began teaching courses on Chinese history at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in the XUAR capital Urumqi in 1988 upon graduating from the prestigious Xinjiang University and in 2012 formed the Imin Publishing House, which within five years had issued around 50 books on topics that included technology, education, psychology, and women’s issues.
Seydin, while a Muslim, was not particularly religious and generally adhered to government guidelines on faith—putting his loyalty to the Communist Party before the central tenets of Islam—according to his daughter, Samira Imin, who has lived in exile in the U.S. since 2014 and recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service.
He taught secular courses on revolutionary history, joined several government-sponsored hajj pilgrimages to Mecca, and in early 2017 was sent to Kokterek village, in Hotan (in Chinese Hetian) prefecture’s Guma (Pishan) county, to join a work group with the XUAR Bureau of Religious Affairs.
During his time in Guma county, he gave an interview with official media about his experiences promoting Beijing’s policies in the region and urging villagers to oppose the three evils of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism.”
But despite toeing the party line, Seydin was called back to Urumqi in May 2017 and detained by the Public Security Bureau, which did not provide his family with any information about where he was being held, Imin said, citing contacts in the XUAR, adding that she had last made contact with her father while he was in Hotan in April of the same year.
“He was detained by the Public Security Bureau in May 2017 and in May 2019—two years later—they held a closed trial,” she said, without providing details.
“I only learned about [his detention] in September , the beginning of September. According to what I heard, they gave a book called ‘Arabic Grammar’ as the reason. It wasn’t even the Qur’an, it was just a book about Arabic grammar.”
Imin Publishing had released “Arabic Grammar” in 2014, which Imin said was done as a favor by her father for a colleague at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, and which included some references to Islam.
“Normally, my father didn’t publish books on religion like that,” she said, adding that such literature is entirely legal under Chinese laws protecting religious freedom.
RFA was able to obtain a document from an anonymous source in the XUAR which shows that Seydin was initially held at a facility that makes up part of the region’s network of 1,300-1,400 internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
The document, entitled “Notice on the Censuring of Iminjan Seydin” and issued by the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in November 2019, said that in February 2019 Urumqi’s Tengritagh (Tianshan) District Court found Seydin guilty of “inciting extremism” and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, five years’ deprivation of political rights, and a fine of 500,000 yuan (U.S. $71,000), although it cites no evidence of his crimes.
In its notice, the school says it ended Seydin’s employment contract after he was detained and placed in a camp, dissolved his relationship to the institute, and terminated his salary and benefits.
The school demands the return of Seydin’s salary from May 10, 2017 to April 30, 2019—totaling 90,517 yuan (U.S. $12,860)—as well as 15,262 yuan (U.S. $2,170) that had been deposited into his retirement account.
The notice also says that payments into Seydin’s retirement account ceased in August 2018, although it does not explain why the deposits stopped six months ahead of his May 2019 trial, and references “article 22” of a September 2012 document issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security as the basis for their actions.
Repeated calls by RFA to the Xinjiang Islamic Institute seeking comment on the claims made in the document, as well as the circumstances behind Seydin’s detention and sentencing, went unanswered at the time of publishing.
Imin told RFA that her mother has continued to operate her father’s company despite his incarceration, issuing books that have been authorized by the government for publishing.
But she maintained that what Seydin had published before his detention did not warrant the reaction by authorities.
“I’ve heard that there are at least 48 people who have been detained from publishing companies, but everything my father published was legal,” Imin said.
“My dad published these books hoping that he could help people who spoke Uyghur—I believe he did it with the idea in mind that he didn’t want our people to be behind the rest of the world, and that they should live in even greater accordance with law,” she added.
“For example, he would always tell me to be on the lookout for new books when I traveled. He wanted me to bring them back so that [his company] could publish them. He always said things like this—he has very advanced ideas and is very liberal.”
The detention and sentencing of Seydin appears similar to multiple reports RFA has received about other prominent Uyghur publishers who have been targeted by authorities since Beijing rolled out its police of mass incarceration in the XUAR in 2017.
In December last year, RFA learned that authorities had arrested Gheyret Abdurahman, the deputy head of the Linguistics Department at the Academy of Social Sciences of Xinjiang, in March 2018 over his translation of a novel, The Red Sorghum Clan, by Chinese Nobel Literature laureate Mo Yan.
The translation was published in 2013 by the Kashgar Publishing House, over 600 of whose titles are now considered politically sensitive by Chinese authorities, and which has seen at least 14 of its staff members arrested since 2017.
While Beijing once denied the existence of the camp system, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Recent leaks of official Chinese documents obtained by The New York Times and other media outlets outline the Communist Party’s “ruthless and extraordinary campaign” to organize mass incarcerations in the XUAR and include the first known “manual” for operating camps, which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said are proof that Beijing is committing “very significant” rights abuses in the region.
Reported by Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly quoted Seydin's daughter as saying that he was tried in May 2017.