A court in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region has sentenced a prominent ethnic Uyghur Muslim religious scholar to nine years behind bars for “refusing to cooperate” with Chinese authorities, according to police and local officials.
According to reports on Uyghur social media, Qamber Amber was handed nine years in prison following a March 21 public trial at the Hanerik township high school in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Hotan county.
Amber was among 17 people charged with “various crimes related to state security,” the reports said, without providing details of the verdicts for the other 16 defendants.
Chief of the Hanerik police station Abdugheni Zakir said Amber, who had been stripped of his role as imam of Hanerik Mosque in 2004 for using “ironic and critical terms” against state policy in his speeches, had been offered reinstatement last year, but refused the position.
“Last year, when the government began a campaign against religious extremism, the authorities gave him a chance to go back to the mosque as imam, but he rejected the offer because of health problems,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Later, we found that he had been traveling everywhere in Hotan to participate in public events, including weddings and burial ceremonies, and he has never refused to preach in public if requested.”
Zakir said Amber had most recently given a speech at a Muslim marriage ceremony, despite restrictions on religious speeches without permits.
“Although he didn’t criticize state policy or instigate anything, his speech was not in line with what the government encourages,” he said.
When asked what law in the Chinese constitution Amber had broken, Zakir was unable to say.
“Of course, as in many cases, the charge doesn’t fit with the law, but it syncs very well with several key regulations about maintaining stability, issued by prefectural and regional authorities,” he said.
“There is a footnote to every law which [informs local authorities]: ‘You can implement this law as needed according to your specific situation.’ In our area, stability is the primary goal—that is how we are following the regulations and have not contradicted any law.”
Zakir defended Amber’s sentence, saying the scholar’s refusal to accept the position of imam “was not the only reason for his jailing.”
“He has a criminal background and has not stopped teaching and discussing controversial religious topics, despite warnings from the local police,” he said.
“He never learned his lesson from the situation in Hotan, where many bloody incidents and trials against illegal religious activity have occurred, and he has continued to preach his so-called ‘true Islam’.”
Zakir also referred to Amber’s composition of a poem in 2002 titled “It is Hard to be Muslim in Hotan,” which he had since recited several times in public forums in the prefecture.
“He was supposed to get at least three years in jail for that, but we detained him for only 15 days [at the time], taking into consideration his wealth of religious knowledge and popularity among the public in Hotan,” Zakir said.
Hotan prefecture in southwestern Xinjiang has been a hotbed of violent stabbing and shooting incidents between ethnic, mostly Muslim Uyghurs and Chinese security forces, with attacks coming amid a string of assaults and bombings across the region, formally called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
In recent years, China has launched a series of “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang in the name of fighting separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.
The targets of these campaigns, the minority Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uyghurs, complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by China’s communist government.
‘Instigated nationalism, separatism’
Memtimin Abdulla, the police officer in charge of Hanerik’s No. 12 village, called Amber “clever,” and said that while he would receive frequent reports about the illegality of his speeches, the former imam would always claim innocence when summoned for questioning.
“What I remember from the trial is that he said, ‘You cannot be a good Muslim simply by praying five times a day, you must also do something good for your land and your people’,” Abdulla said.
“I had interrogated him before about this quote, which he said was meant to refer to China and the Chinese people … and I believed it, because he did not refer to specific names and, according to him, it was unnecessary to explain it, as everyone holds a Chinese ID card and lives in China.”
Abdulla cited the court as saying the quote “instigated nationalism and separatism.”
“The court authorities said that while the reference to ‘land and people’ in the quote was used ambiguously, the speech received more applause than usual—especially by young people—indicating that the reference meant [the former short-lived republic of] East Turkistan and East Turkistanis,” he said.
“They said the quote had a negative effect on the youth in terms of the unity of the country and its ethnicities.”
A resident of Hotan, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said authorities had become frightened of Amber’s popularity, noting that wherever he went to pray, preach or join a ceremony, “the number of attendees doubled—especially young people.”
“Our government has an allergic reaction to public gatherings—they don’t like it and are even scared of it if it occurs outside of the control of the authorities,” the resident said.
“That is why [Amber] has been hated by officials and under constant watch by the police.”
A teacher from Hotan, who also declined to give his name, said the government had two areas of focus in its most recent “strike hard” campaign.
“On the one hand, they are targeting young people who are viewed as ‘potential troublemakers’ simply because of their independent behavior,” he said.
“On the other hand, they are targeting religious and public figures that hold independent views or thinking toward regional issues.”
The teacher said that with no one permitted to challenge poorly conceived policies implemented by the government, ethnic unrest is likely to continue in the Xinjiang region.
“In our land, the authorities—especially the Han Chinese—don’t know what the Uyghur people are thinking and feeling, despite living together for more than 50 years,” he said.
“Meanwhile, Uyghur [officials] have no courage to speak reality, because they were chosen only according to their loyalty to the government,” he said.
“If one of these officials could better understand the problems and voice their concerns—even if they can’t solve them on their own—it could help decrease tension in the region.”
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.