Chinese Authorities Reduce Life Sentence of Uyghur Prisoner

Gulmira Imin is now serving 19 years and eight months in jail for a statement of contrition that activists say was contrived.
2021.06.22
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Chinese Authorities Reduce Life Sentence of Uyghur Prisoner Gulmira Imin in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy fo USCIRF

Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have reduced to 19 years the life sentence of a Muslim Uyghur woman imprisoned for her alleged leadership role in deadly 2009 unrest, after she signed a written statement of remorse her supporters say was likely forced, a police officer said.

Gulmira Imin, former web administrator for the Uyghur-language website Salkin and government employee in the XUAR’s capital Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi), participated in a major peaceful demonstration protesting the deaths of Uyghur migrant workers attacked and killed by Chinese mobs at a toy factory under Chinese police watch in Guangdong province.

But the demonstration turned violent, evolving into unrest between Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese and leaving 200 people dead, 1,700 injured, according to China's official figures, though Uyghur rights groups say the numbers are much higher. More than 1,000 Uyghurs were jailed and several thousands of others were “disappeared” in what Uyghur exile groups said was the most deadly episode of ethnic unrest in China’s recent history.

Authorities arrested Gulmira nine days late in Aksu (Akesu), accusing her of organizing the protest, posting an announcement about it on Salkin, and leaking state secrets by phone to her husband in Norway, according to according to a brief biography of her on the website of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Her family was not notified of her arrest and was unaware of her location until the airing of an October 2009 China Central Television documentary that depicted her in prison garb, the bio said.

On April 1, 2010, the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Gulmira to life in prison on charges of “splittism, leaking state secrets, and organizing an illegal demonstration,” according to USCIRF. She is being detained in the Xinjiang Women’s Prison (Xinjiang No. 2 Prison) in Urumqi.

Gulmira’s sentence was reduced to 19 years and eight months after she issued a statement of contrition for her alleged involvement in the violent riots, said a policeman in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak with the media.

Chinese authorities videotaped the Gulmira’s statement in 2017 and later showed the video in prisons and “re-education” camps, according to the policeman, who said he had worked in Kashgar’s Yanbulaq Prison as well as in an internment camp in Opal.

“She said that even the death penalty would be too little a punishment for her and that the [Chinese Communist] Party [CCP] and government had spared her,” the police officer said, referring to the video. “She said she’d been given a life sentence, but because she’d demonstrated good behavior, they granted her amnesty.”

In the video, Gulmira said that her sentenced had been reduced to 19 years and eight months on account of the “care” of the CCP and government, he said.

“They showed it in re-education [camps] as well,” he said about the video. “They distributed propaganda papers about it. I also heard her speak live in prison

“They showed it to people in every cell,” the police officer said. “They streamed it on TVs from the web. I can’t say how many people it was who watched it.”

‘They undoubtedly used threats’

As one of several individuals punished severely for their connection to the 2009 unrest in Urumqi, Gulmira is widely known in the international community.

Though relevant U.N. agencies have made formal inquiries about her case, the Chinese government has never given sufficient responses. RFA also has regularly inquired about her condition during phone interviews with police officers in the XUAR.

Omerjan Jamal, a former Uyghur police officer now living in Sweden, told RFA last week that the reduction of Gulmira’s sentence is essentially meaningless and suggested that she is aware of this.

There is no significant difference between “long” and “short” sentences for political prisoners, given that even after their release from prison they are re-arrested and imprisoned each time a new political “storm” takes place, he said.

The new information about Gulmira is not a sign of improvement or progress either for Gulmira herself or for the Uyghur issue more broadly, but instead a testament to the continued cruelty of China’s prison management system, Omerjan said.

“There’s nothing true about Gulmira Imin’s written statement of repentance,” he said. “There’s no way it is something she did of her own accord. There’s no way that they elicited this repentance by using sweet or soft methods to tell her they would shorten her sentence if she did so.”

“They undoubtedly used threats and fear to tell her she had to do it, and that if she didn’t, she would just have to see what would happen, that her relatives, this person or that, would be accused and sentenced as well,” Omerjan said.

Abduweli Ayup, a Norway-based Uyghur activist previously imprisoned in the XUAR, told RFA last week that in his experience, “important” prisoners such as Gulmira are often forced to express “remorse” in prison, sometimes under torture, and he surmised that she likely faced the same.

“They are always forcing people to express repentance and forcing people to express regret in detention, in prison,” he said, referring to Chinese authorities.

Drawing on his own experiences during the year-and-a-half he was imprisoned, Abduweli said that it was likely Gulmira has been severely tortured while in prison. He also said that Chinese authorities often force well-known prisoners to publicly “repent” as a way of both attacking the honor of those prisoners and breaking the will of other prisoners.

“They’re explaining to the people that they have recognized that they made ‘mistakes.’” Abduweli said. “This lowers the spirits of the prisoners. It also plays a role in making them think, ‘Aha, these people have asked for repentance, and if I ask for it too, they will shorten my sentence,’ and in making them come to the decision that they should reveal their own ‘mistakes,’” he said.

Abduweli stressed that it would be highly unlikely that Gulmira, a well-educated intellectual, to meaningfully change her political views in such a short period, particularly if she witnessed injustice while in prison.

Prior to her arrest, Gulmira Imin, who graduated from Xinjiang University in 2000, was a leading official in an Urumqi neighborhood committee in an area with about 10,000 residents. In 2009, she became a moderator of Salkin, a Uyghur-language culture and news website to which she had previously contributed poetry and short stories. Many of her online writings criticized government policies, according to USCIRF.

Sandra Jolley, former vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, adopted Gulmira as her “prisoner of conscience” and continued to follow her story and seek information on her condition.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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