Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang have launched a crackdown on supporters of an ethnic minority Kazakh imam who died in police custody last month, with authorities attributing the cause of death to "suicide," sources in the region told RFA.
The Kazakh imam, known by a single name, Akmet, was detained by authorities in Xinjiang's Sanji (in Chinese, Changji) Hui Autonomous Prefecture, and died in police custody on the night of June 4, they said.
Since then, police have been pursuing more than 100 people who spoke out about his death online, a source close to the case told RFA.
"The well-known imam Akmet was said to have committed suicide," the source said. "Now, the state security police in Xinjiang are detaining anyone who paid attention to or supported Akmet's case across the whole region."
"They have already detained more than 100 of his friends and former classmates from across Xinjiang," the source said. "Some are graduates of the Xinjiang Islamic College."
"They have pretty much got all of his classmates from there now."
He said police had rushed through the funeral arrangements, forbidding the family from having an imam present, and posting a guard to prevent anyone from laying wreaths at his tomb.
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.
In May, ethnic Kazakh businessman Kurmanbek from Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) Prefecture, near Karamay city, "disappeared" after running a business helping ethnic Kazakhs in China emigrate to Kazakhstan.
Repeated calls to Kurmanbek's farm in Xinjiang's Dorbiljin (Emin) county rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
And on June 25, Kamanijit, a resident of Karamay's Maytagh (Dushanzi) district, was detained by state security police after having "frequent contact" with Kazakhs across the border, and discussing immigration issues online, a source told RFA.
"Kamanijit was detained by the state security police in Karamay without any explanation," the source said.
Such detainees are often forced to attend "political reeducation centers," one of which has been set up at the Petrochemical Vocational College in Dushanzi, the source said, adding that two types of people are likely to be sent there.
"One category is Uyghurs who have traveled to Turkey or sent their children there, and the second is Kazakhs who have Kazakh nationality or who send their children there," the source said.
Authorities have also banned the wearing of "long skirts" among ethnic minority women.
52-year-old ethnic Kazakh woman Gulzhaina Tisak was also sent to a re-education center after she refused to wear shorter skirts, the source said.
Local Muslim residents can be sent to such centers for any length of time ranging from 15 days to a year by police without trial, he said. Anyone not cooperating with the program could face criminal detention or a criminal sentence.
Earlier this year, a prominent Kazakh imam known as Okan was jailed for 10 years by a court in Kaba (Habahe) county, Altay (Aletai) Prefecture, for performing traditional funeral prayers in accordance with Islamic customs, Kazakh sources said.
Okan's jailing came three years after the sentencing of Habuli, an imam from a mosque near the regional capital Urumqi, they said.
Many of the religious restrictions imposed for many years on Xinjiang's Uyghur population have been applied to Kazakhs, too, according to members of the ethnic group in China and Kazakhstan, where some have staged a protest in recent weeks over the enforced cutting off of communications with friends and family across the border.
The authorities are increasingly policing their speech, however, even to the extent of criminalizing formulaic exchanges of blessings using traditional Islamic phrases, the Kazakh source said.
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.