Women Held Over Party

Two Uyghur women describe how police sent five women to jail and seven to forced labor for holding an illegal gathering.

kashgar-305.jpg An ethnic Uyghur family in Kashgar, Aug. 6, 2008.

UPDATED: Corrects date of detentions

On April 24, police in Tashkowrok village in Gulja city, broke up a party of 30 women belonging to the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group at a family home, according to several of the women who were present. Some wore traditional Muslim headscarves, discouraged in some areas because they denote a separate, non-Chinese ethnic identity.

While police didn’t indicate what crime they were suspected of committing, authorities in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have banned private gatherings that involve the practice of Islam on suspicion that these could promote ethnic separatism. Authorities may have anticipated unrest as the gathering followed the sentencing—also in Gulja—of 12 Uyghur men convicted of “splitting the country,” or separatism, in November 2008.

Eighteen of the women were freed after eight hours of interrogation, seven were sent for forced labor for 10 days, and five were sentenced to a month in jail, according to two of the jailed women. A pregnant woman in the last group was released after 13 days, while the remaining four served their sentences and were allowed to return home May 25. Officials at the Tashkowrok village and Gulja city police stations, contacted by telephone, declined to comment on the case.

Rahile Semet hosted the gathering. Excerpts of her interview follow:
Q: How many days were you in jail?
A: A whole 31 days.
Q: How many people were sentenced?
A: Five of us were sentenced to a month-long jail term. One of us is pregnant, and her health deteriorated in the jail—she kept vomiting in jail, and after 13 days she was set free because of her health problem. Four of us had to stay behind to complete our sentences.
Q: Seven of you were sentenced to forced labor?
A: Yes, that’s true. They were sent to Chapchal county to pick pumpkins.
Q: On what charges did they arrest you?
A: I don’t know, personally—I know nothing.
Q: Could you explain to me what happened?
A: We had a traditional friendly gathering in my home. When all the guests had arrived, police cars were suddenly flooding the front of my home. I was stunned at what was happening and didn’t know what I should do. The police rammed their way into my home. First they took video of everything in my home, and then they took all of us to Tashkowrok police station, and then they sent us to Gulja city police headquarters for interrogation. After that they sent us to Ili city’s New Life jail.
Q: What did they ask you during the interrogation?
A: The police were asking what was the purpose of our gathering. We said we were holding our traditional party. They asked how much money I had collected from this party and what did I want to do with this money? I answered, I will buy flour, cooking oil, and meat for one to two weeks’ cooking. We are all peasants—we are housewives and our husbands are farmers …  All I collected from the party in total was 820 yuan (about U.S. $120). After the interrogation, we were put in jail. For the first three days we slept on bare concrete floors without anything under us or any covers. And we were not allowed to meet with anyone for 31 days … We were separated from each other. Each room in the jail housed 13 prisoners, some political prisoners, and some criminals.
Q: Didn’t you ask the police why you were arrested?
A: No, I was just so happy to be released—I missed my children so much! I didn't even think to ask those questions … For the first two days I was back home, I was totally lost. Today I regained some sort of feeling.

Henipe Sultan was a guest at the gathering. Excerpts of her interview follow:
Q: When were you arrested and released?  Did the police give you some kind of legal document to sign?
A: Other ladies got the document stating that they would be imprisoned for a month. The police didn’t tell me exactly for how long I would be imprisoned … The police sent the document through the bars of the cell and asked me to sign it—they pushed me to sign it without reading it. I didn’t even know how long my term would be until I was released.
Q: What was your crime?
A: Holding an illegal gathering.
Q: Why it is illegal?
A: What I heard from the people who came to visit me after I was released is that it’s illegal to have gatherings at home—we can have them only at restaurants. During my interrogation, the police said we can have gatherings for prayer only at the mosque, and we absolutely cannot gather to pray anywhere else, and only the government-appointed imam can teach religion—no one else.
Q: Did you pray at the party?
A: No, we just got together. It was to help each other and have some fun. We are all housewives—instead of bringing some gifts, each guest brings the host some cash and the host collects some money. Each of us gets a turn to host a party, once a month, to help us improve our lives. This is our tradition. Everyone knows this. We don’t know how it was regarded as a religious gathering.
Q: Is it because you were wearing headscarves?
A: Yes, we had headscarves. During the interrogation, and in the jail, the police threatened me by saying, ‘You are a political prisoner—you should obey.’ I never had a chance to learn about politics, and now I am more confused. We don’t want to hurt society. We just want to raise our children nicely. We are women who want to live a harmonious life.
Q: Were you all wearing headscarves?
A: Some of us. All who were sentenced for a month-long jail term had scarves, and the police confiscated our scarves, our outfits, in jail.
Q: Did the police remove your scarf or did you hand it over to them?
A: The prison guard ordered me to take it off, and then I tossed it to them.
Q: When you were released, did the police return your scarf?
A: No, they didn’t. I went home without it.

Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated by Ilshat Hesenjan. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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