Authorities in China's troubled northwestern Xinjiang region have stepped up security checks on citizens, an overseas rights group said on Tuesday, as at least five ethnic minority Uyghurs are detained for possession of material deemed subversive by Beijing.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the tightened measures had begun last week in the regional capital Urumqi, but had also been reported in the south of the region, where police were carrying out house searches in the middle of the night.
"In the Aksu district there were some Uyghurs who were discovered in possession of photographs of [exiled Uyghur leader] Rebiya Kadeer and former U.S. president George W. Bush on their computers," Raxit said. "They were detained."
"In Yangtakexiehaier village, the police organized nearly 60 people to search more than 200 Uyghur households on Dec. 20," he added. "Some of the methods they used were violent."
He said police had confiscated computers from the home of at least one villager, Azmet Sadik, and had discovered "religious propaganda materials" at the home of another, Yifu Halili.
"They included books and disks explaining to people how to conduct [Islamic] prayers," Raxit said. "The two men are currently being held in the local police station."
The searches are believed to be part of a 100-day "strike hard"
anti-terror campaign in Xinjiang, begun by the Chinese authorities three weeks ago.
Four Uyghur men were detained recently in Urumqi for "taking part in illegal religious activities," while dozens were fined, Raxit said.
China's Muslim Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority that has long chafed under Beijing's rule, have their practice of Islam tightly regulated by the ruling Communist Party, which bans children from mosques and controls everything about their worship, from the wording of sermons to "approved" interpretations of the Quran.
According to the authorities, study of the Quran in an unauthorized location constitutes an "illegal religious activity."
Raxit said raids had also taken place in Urumqi, which was rocked by ethnic violence in July 2009 that left nearly 200 people dead, according to official figures.
"There was a huge operation in Urumqi on Saturday," he said. "This was mostly focused on the close-packed Uyghur districts on the outskirts of the city."
Xinjiang's regional ruling Communist Party secretary Zhang Chunxian, who was brought in as a hardline "new broom" following the 2009 violence, said last week that his government would be stepping up measures to "preserve social stability" during 2012, when the party holds its 18th Congress, and Urumqi will host another Eurasian Expo.
The Xinjiang Daily quoted Zhang as calling on regional officials to make a watchful security stance the norm rather than the exception.
"Officials at all levels must harden their stance on opposing splittism and stepping up their crackdown on extremist religious forces and their activities," Zhang told a meeting on stability and security at the weekend.
An Urumqi resident surnamed Zhang said the citizens' security brigades that were recruited from among the Han population in the wake of the 2009 unrest were still very much in evidence.
"There are still a lot of security personnel and employees wearing red armbands in the underground markets and malls," he said.
"Some are uniformed [private] security guards, while others are employees wearing red armbands."
Since the raids in Aksu last week, three more Uyghur men have been detained in continuing raids on Uyghur homes, Raxit said.
"They are accused of possessing reactionary, splittist reading materials," he said.
A police officer who answered the phone at the village police station confirmed the raids had taken place.
"Yes, that's right," the officer said, when asked if police there had recently confiscated "illegal" religious recordings and DVDs. "Mostly it was religious content, but there was also some pornography, along with other things that have been banned now," the officer said.
Asked if the confiscated material included media of Rebiya Kadeer, he said: "Yes, there were pictures of Rebiya Kadeer, as well as audiovisual material, which basically means stuff on DVD. She is subversive and a splittist."
But he declined to confirm how many Uyghurs were being held. "I'm not very familiar with the details, because things change daily from shift to shift," he said.
He said Uyghurs found with such material would receive different treatment "depending on the circumstances."
"We would have to see what they had been found with, the things that we found, and also the things that the state security police found," he said. "The more serious cases [will get criminal detention]...then we get in touch with the religious affairs bureau and we work on some of the process together."
Official media say Beijing wants to turn Urumqi into an important exchange platform for leaders and businesses in China and its western and southern neighbors, including Russia, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan.
But some experts believe Beijing's rapid development of Xinjiang, which they say has created more opportunities for Han Chinese than for the local Uyghur population, is leading to additional ethnic tension in the region.
Last year, Beijing ramped up security before and during for the five-day China-Eurasia Expo trade fair in Urumqi. The added security measures came in the wake of separate attacks in the Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Hotan that killed more than 30 people in July.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.