Chinese authorities have jailed 20 people, all believed to be Uyghurs, for using the Internet to “spread separatism” in the troubled Xinjiang region, state media announced Thursday, amid strict curbs on the ethnic group during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
An exile group immediately criticized the move, saying it was intended to intimidate and silence the Uyghurs, who claim they are discriminated against by Chinese authorities.
Courts in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and in the cities of Aksu and Kashgar sentenced the 20 to between 18 months and 15 years for “plotting terrorist activities,” according to the state media reports.
Only five of those sentenced were identified and the media reports did not specify their ethnicity, but all had Uyghur names.
The 20 were accused of being involved in five terrorist groups and attempting to “incite ethnic hatred and provoke a so-called ‘holy war’ against the nation,” the People’s Daily said, adding that four had allegedly made illegal explosives.
The sentences come after Xinjiang's top leader Zhang Chunxian vowed last month to strike with an "iron fist" against separatist forces in the region, where tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese run high.
Chinese authorities often link Uyghurs in Xinjiang to violent separatist groups but experts familiar with the region have said China has exaggerated the threat and cited a “war on terror” in attempt to take the heat off of domestic policies that cause unrest.
The exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said the harsh sentences were intended to further prevent Uyghurs from speaking out.
“China is meting out heavy sentences to Uyghurs who use the Internet to access information that is not controlled by the authorities and who are expressing opposing political views,” WUC spokesman Dilxat Raxit said.
Similar charges have been “routinely” leveled against in an attempt to silence critics, the group said in a statement.
WUC President Rebiya Kadeer said those sentenced, like many Uyghurs accused of terrorism in China’s legal system, had not received representation in court.
“It is our understanding that the 20 Uyghurs who were sentenced today were not represented by a lawyer throughout the process and [were] sentenced on spurious grounds in which the authorities had twisted their desires to seek freedom and challenge institutional persecution,” she said in a statement.
The jailings came as Uyghurs face punishment for merely practicing their religion and are subject to various curbs during Ramadan, sources told RFA.
One Uyghur man, a retired teacher in Ili prefecture, said Uyghurs were being accused of “crimes” for practicing Islam.
“These Uyghur youths sentenced today, none of them are terrorists, they just simply want to practice their religion freely,” he said speaking on condition of anonymity.
“When they find religious book in someone’s home, they says it’s illegal religious material. When people gather to break the [Ramadan] fast, they accuse them of organizing crime and planning to split the country. They use any excuse to arrest them,” he said.
He added that restrictions were especially tight during this year’s Ramadan as the region came under a ‘strike hard’ campaign launched by the authorities.
“Recently, the authorities are using the slogan of ‘using an ‘iron fist’ … and the situation is extremely tense. The government is severely restricting Uyghur people’s normal religious practices, especially during the month of Ramadan.”
“The hard strike on our beliefs and religion is harsher than ever before.”
Another source, a Uyghur peasant in Hotan, said Ramadan curbs were more extensive this year.
“Previously the authorities just requested government employees, cadres, teachers, and students to avoid fasting during Ramadan; this year they have extended the restrictions to ordinary people—peasants, private businessmen,” he said.
“How can we call this an ethnically unified harmonious society?”
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.