China’s jailing of 20 ethnic Uyghurs this week on terrorism and separatism charges using online activism as a basis for their conviction reflects government moves to increase media controls and use weak laws to suppress voices in the troubled Xinjiang region, Uyghur rights groups say.
The courts said the 20 Uyghur Muslims had had their "thoughts poisoned by religious extremism" and used cell phones and DVDs "to spread Muslim religious propaganda," the government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region said on its official news website.
Nineteen of them were given prison sentences ranging from 5 years to life in prison in Xinjiang’s Kashagar prefecture while the 20th suspect was sentenced to 10 years in jail on the same day in the Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture.
They were accused of using the Internet, mobile phones and digital storage devices to organize, lead and participate in an alleged terrorist organization with the intent to “incite splittism,” reports have said.
Leading Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said that the sentences showed the new Chinese leadership’s “indifference for human rights and democracy” and that it will “continue with the ‘strike hard’ practices of the previous regimes.”
“It further indicates that the Chinese government will not contribute to the peaceful resolution of the conflict in the region in the near future, preferring instead to continue its counterproductive and destructive practices,” the WUC president said in a statement Thursday.
WUC spokesperson Dilxat Raxit has said that most of the convicted men had downloaded YouTube videos and audio from RFA’s Uyghur Service website through a virtual private network (VPN), which allows Internet users to circumvent Chinese government control over which websites people can access.
The sentences “reflect a Chinese government move to increase control over information that contradicts an official narrative of conditions in [Xinjiang],” Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) said in a statement.
“These sentences are intended to scare Uyghur people from discovering an alternative account of events in their homeland and is a violation of their right to freedom of information,” UAA President Alim Seytoff said.
Seytoff said that Uyghurs, many of whom say they are suffering under government repression in Xinjiang, do not trust Chinese state propaganda, which he said often paints an unrealistic depiction of life for the ethnic minority in the region.
“In the saturated media environment of the information age found in many places of the world, the Uyghurs are living in the dark about what is happening to their people,” he said.
“It is no wonder they look for non-government sources of news.”
The WUC said that the use of the word “terrorism” to define the crimes of the 20 Uyghurs “shows that the ‘war on terror’ is still being utilised by the Chinese government to repress the Uyghur political and cultural voices in [Xinjiang].”
It added that a report released earlier this month by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists noted an increase in the number of minority reporters in China, “adding further evidence to the lack of freedom of expression and alternative opinions being exercised by the people.”
“An increasing degree of censorship and limitations on Internet use and the freedom of the press demonstrate that the expected evolution of the Chinese political system towards liberalization and opening with economic developments will not happen through the current political structure,” it said.
WUC General Secretary Nurmemet Musabay told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the official verdicts against the 20 men included convictions on charges that are “absolutely not criminal activities.”
“People who try to obtain information about regional or global political events and news are not committing crimes—this is simply an issue of personal rights,” he said.
“That the court decided to categorize ‘seeking alternative opinions and information’ as crime indicates that the government is not only trying to cover up it is own wrongdoings, but that it is also worried that the flow of free information will wake people up to oppose its Beijing’s unjust policy in the region.”
The government-run news portal Tianshan Net reported that the men convicted in the Kashgar court were spreading materials by the Eastern Turkistan Islamic movement and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both of which are considered terrorist organizations by Chinese authorities.
It also said the men were illegally engaged in Muslim preaching.
Nurmemet Musabay said that seeking information about the policies of other countries and organizations is a “natural instinct” and should be considered beneficial, rather than a threat, to a society.
“Governments which believe they maintain fair policies for their own people should not fear people who have different political points of views, or those that listen to and learn from different political opinions,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.