Three Uyghurs shot dead last week by authorities in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang after they killed five Chinese passersby on the spot and wounded five others with knives appear to have been motivated by anger at threats by local officials to punish them for praying with their family, RFA’s Uyghur Service has learned.
Authorities shot dead brothers Omer Abdurahman, 25, and Memtimin Abdurahman, 21, as well as their friend Ehmet Eli, 21, in a residential area of Guma (in Chinese, Pishan) county in the Silk Road region of Hotan (Hetian) on Feb. 14.
The Hotan government said in a brief statement on its official news website the day after the incident that “thugs” had killed five passersby and injured five others among crowds in a residential area around 2:30 p.m.
RFA interviews with local authorities and others familiar with the incident indicate that a stability working group of officials barged into the Abdurahman home in Guma’s Yengibazar village the day before the attacks and discovered that Omer’s and Memtimin’s father Abdurahman Rehmetulla had led an “illegal” family prayer service.
The groups, which consist of cadres and security officials from the regional capital Urumqi and village-level officials visit Uyghur farmers’ homes every day as part of an effort to maintain social order in the restive region.
China has officially outlawed group prayer services in the Uyghur region, even in one’s own home with family members, as a way to curb Muslim religious practices. Uyghurs who hold such group prayer sessions face severe punishment.
After the members of the working group called police to report the “illegal religious activity,” officers arrived immediately and took all eight people in the house to the police station for questioning, but later released them.
On Feb. 14, police summoned Omer and Memtimin to the station again along with their friend Ehmet Eli.
Before the attack
About three hours before the attack, Omer and Memtimin went to township chief Ablikim Turek’s office requesting irrigation water for their greenhouse, Abliz Mamut, a Chinese Communist Party member and former village party secretary, told RFA.
It was there that they were informed that local police wanted them to provide more details about the illegal prayer service their family had held a day earlier, he said.
“When Omer Abdurahman came to my office asking for water, I granted his request and told him that his turn would be at 2 p.m.,” said Ablikim Turek, head of the No. 3 township of Yengibazar. “And I also informed him that the police wanted to see them again.”
“But he did not show up to take his turn at 2 p.m.,” he said, adding that local officials took necessary measures to insure social stability in the area by assigning cadres responsible for overseeing groups of 40 people each.
“[Previously] we had collected signatures, assigned two families to be responsible for each other, and banned praying in private by stressing that it is illegal,” he said. “Yet, we had this incident happen.”
Around 5:30 p.m., the two brothers and Eli went by motorcycle to the Nilofer residential district in Guma’s town center, about 500-600 meters (547-656 yards) from the Abdurahman family’s home, where they brandished knives and carried out the attack, Mamut said.
“The Uyghur onlookers did not intervene,” Mamut said. “We didn’t know if they did so out of fear or to support them. Even though two Chinese resisted with a spade, they were overpowered by them.”
Of the five injured Chinese taken to the prefecture’s hospital, one died two days later, sources said. Among the others killed was an official from the township taxation office and Xiang Xiaoping, wife of the head of the County Commission for Discipline Inspection.
The names of the others who were killed have not yet been released.
Sudden reaction to policing
It appears as though the attack was not premeditated, but rather a sudden reaction to heavy-handed policing by Chinese authorities and the working group who invaded the Abdurahman home and harassed and intimidated the family for holding a family prayer service, sources said.
“It is clear that the attack was not premeditated at all and was carried out instantaneously,” Ababekri Jamal, security chief of the Yengibazar village, said.
“The attackers carried out this attack to protest our country’s religious policy and take revenge against the restrictions on illegal prayers,” he said. “They know that they are no match for our armed forces, so they attacked Chinese people in the town.”
Mamut said that it is possible that the Abdurahman brothers were “fed up with the endless home visits by the working group cadres or displeased by the police call” for performing the Namaz Muslim prayer ritual in their home with their parents and other siblings.
During a Chinese flag-raising ceremony held every morning in the village, an announcement is made to remind Uyghur residents that it is illegal for them to pray in private homes, he said.
Instead, Uyghurs must pray in mosques that have a government-appointed imam.
“Perhaps they might have been scared of being prosecuted for performing Namaz in their own home, because they were aware that some people in adjacent villages had been sentenced for 10 to 12 years in prison in such cases,” Mamut said.
The brothers believed that they had been summoned to the police station a second time for reportedly arguing with police when they hauled in their family members were hauled in for questioning on Feb. 13, he said.
When Omer, Memtimin, and Eli arrived in the center of Guma, they stabbed to death a Chinese man who was entering the taxation office, Mamut said. The trio attacked nine other Chinese in front of the Nilofer residential district, killing four instantly and wounding five.
Though rumors circulated that cadres who had visited the Abdurahman household were among the dead, officials did not mention this during a meeting they held about the attack, Mamut said.
‘Mysterious’ involvement of third attacker
The involvement of the third attacker, Ehmet Eli, is somewhat “mysterious,” Mamut said, because he had gotten a marriage certificate the day before the attack and was to be married that weekend.
On Feb. 13, Eli was ill and having his fluids checked in a hospital when he received a phone call from Omer about an hour before the attack, Mamut said. Afterwards, he asked the nurses to remove needles from his arm, saying that he had something important to attend to.
When a nurse did not comply with his request, he pulled out the needles himself and left the hospital.
Eli did not have any record of suspicious activity, said Abdurahman Abdurishit, Yengibazar’s security chairman. A year ago, however, he was rejected when he tried to enlist in the village militia.
“It is clear that they carried that attack abruptly out of contempt for our government’s policies or out of fear of being punished,” he said. “We do not know if they had some secret plan before. Right now this aspect is under investigation.”
All three attackers, including the Abdurahmans’ parents, did not have very deep religious understanding and had not received religious training in other places, he said.
But he added that the attackers’ families originally hailed from Arakum village in Guma country’s Kokterek township, where people “are a bit dangerous.”
After the Feb. 14 attack, authorities detained all members of the Abdurahman family and questioned about 100 people, including their neighbors, at the village office, Mamut said.
Between 50 and 60 of them were released after three days, and 20 to 30 others are still under investigation.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.