Uyghur Businessman Sentenced to 17 Years in Prison For Ties to Turkey

Musajan Imam had founded the Ihlas grocery store chain and was known for his philanthropic work.
2021-06-17
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Uyghur Businessman Sentenced to 17 Years in Prison For Ties to Turkey Uyghur businessman Musajan Imam in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of Abduweli Ayup

The Uyghur founder of a grocery store chain with more than 500 food stores and 200 product lines throughout China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) was sentenced in May to more than 17 years in prison for his alleged “suspicious” relations with Turkey, following a three-year investigation, sources outside and inside the region told RFA.

Authorities detained Musajan Imam, the founder and owner of Ihlas shops, in 2018, and held his trial last month. He was sentenced to 17 and a half years in jail, according to the Norway-based “Uyghuryar” Foundation, which recently obtained information about the businessman’s case from a source well-connected to political and legal matters in the XUAR.

“We received information that Musa Imam was sentenced to 17 years and six months’ imprisonment,” said Uyghuryar founder and linguist Abduweli Ayup.

RFA was able to confirm the sentencing and further details from relevant officials in the XUAR.

Musajan was praised by the Chinese government as a “model of reform and opening up” after he introduced food products made by Ulker, a Turkish food and beverage brand, to markets in the XUAR in the early 2000s. His business enterprise also includes 50 wholesale outlets.

“Musajan Imam founded Ihlas in 2002,” Abduweli said. “The Ihlas company worked with companies such as Ulker in Turkey and opened branch companies and shops in cities such as Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi), Kashgar (Kashi), Hotan (Hetian), Turpan (Tulufan), and Qomul (Hami). Musa Imam was detained in June of 2018.”

By 2018, he had become a “suspicious person” in the eyes of the authorities and was taken into state custody from an Ihlas office in the XUAR’s capital Urumqi on June 14 of that year, Abduweli said.

During early interrogations, police asked Musajan for information about the origins and history of his business trade with Turkey, he said.

They also demanded information about the identities of people on the Turkish side of his business dealings, and his conversations with them, especially ones he had with Kursad Tuzman, Turkey’s former minister of state responsible for foreign trade from 2002 to 2009.

Musajan told police that his communications had been permitted and open, and that there were no issues that needed to be reported, Abduweli said.

“In the information we received, the fact that Musa Imam distributed products by the Turkish company Ulker and had close relationships with high-level leaders in Turkey were given as reasons [for his detention],” Abduweli said.

Several reasons for arrest

A court official in Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, where the trial and sentencing took place, declined to comment on the case, saying it was sensitive. But the officials did not deny that the businessman had been tried among a group of leading Uyghur entrepreneurs who recently stood trial and were sentenced in the city of Atush (Atushi).

Records from Musajan’s interrogations suggest that other “issues” for which he was detained included his role in expanding halal foods in the XUAR, the Uyghur style he used to decorate his buildings, the businesses he owned, the identities of the people and organizations to whom he gave zakat (tithes), and his donations for the building of two elementary schools, Abduweli said.

China has in recent years tightened the repression of Uyghur and Islamic cultural practices under in what authorities say is an effort to combat extremism.

Musajan’s relationship with Turkey weighed heavily in his sentencing, Abduweli added.

“Based on this information, we see Musajan Imam’s detention as connected to things like his long-standing relationships to people in the political class in Turkey and his role in creating a social environment to strengthen relations between Uyghurs and Turks,” he said.

Musajan is the younger brother of the late Kudrat Imam, a well-known entrepreneur who founded Qiran Burkut Real Estate. Kudrat and another of Musajan’s older brothers, Rozi Imam, received Turkish citizenship. Musajan was interrogated about his relationship with his older brothers when questioned by the authorities, Abduweli said.

Musajan’s brothers did business in Central Asia and Turkey, and in the 1990s they built a 20-story building in Urumqi for a shopping center called Kiran Burkut. This building was a very visible structure reflecting Uyghur culture in the city at the time, alongside another shopping center built by Uyghur businesswoman and political activist Rebiya Kadeer.

An official at the Atush Intermediate People’s Court told RFA to contact the prosecuting authorities for information about Musajan’s arrest and sentencing.

Another source claiming familiarity with the situation told RFA that Musajan had been conducting business separately from his two brothers in Turkey since 2005, specifically to guard against any scandals or trouble.

Musajan had a disagreement with his Chinese business partners while he and his brothers were constructing a building in Urumqi in the early 2000s before he separated his businesses from those of his Turkish-citizen brothers, Abduweli said.

The brothers used their Turkish citizenship as a means of resolving the issue, but the incident was later raised and used as retaliation against Musajan in the post-2017 environment in the XUAR, when Chinese authorities began forcing Uyghurs into “re-education” camps, Abduweli said.

“Even though this situation was more or less resolved back at the time, after the start of the mass detention campaign in 2017, the Chinese government brought this issue back up and blamed [Musajan], saying that [the brothers] had used their Turkish citizenship to put pressure on the [Chinese] government,” Abduweli said.

‘Such good works’

Musajan’s case is one of the highest secrecy cases in the XUAR, Abduweli said. The businessman has not seen his family since his 2018 detention, nor have his relatives been formally notified of the verdict of his recent trial.

Musajan’s son-in-law, Muzappar Imam, the general manager of his company, and his nephew, Akbar Ala, the owner of Hayat Trading Company, were also arrested and sentenced in April trials, according to information obtained by the Uyghuryar Foundation. The lengths of the two men’s sentences are unknown.

An official working in investigations in Atush confirmed that Musajan is currently serving his sentence in the city’s Aghu Prison.

Musajan’s business, formally called Ihlas Professional Development Company, has more than 2,000 employees. In addition to creating jobs for many young Uyghurs, Ikhlas has also long been a leading business in the local economy.

The Ihlas company also addressed traffic issues, laid roads in Azaq in Atush, and built a water tower in the city so that locals had clean water drink. The company also provided assistance to Xinjiang University students facing financial difficulties and distributed more than 100 million yuan (U.S. $15.6 million) annually to help the poor in Kashgar, Hotan, and Atush.

“Even having done such good works, Imam Musa, his son, and his nephew were unable to escape detention,” Abduweli said.

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

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