Two Uyghur civil servants in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have been jailed for failing to send members of their ethnic group to “political re-education camps,” according to sources, as part of a crackdown by authorities on so-called “two-faced” officials.
Omerjan Hesen, 34, director of archives for the Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefectural government, and Elijan Ahmet, 35, China’s ruling Communist Party secretary of Hotan’s Keriye (Yutian) county government, were handed 11-year jail terms in May last year, a source with connections in the region recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Both Hesen and Ahmet graduated from Xinjiang University in the capital Urumqi, with degrees in history and business management, respectively, and, after becoming civil servants, were handpicked by their superiors for advancement, based on their proficiency and hard work, the source said.
But after XUAR party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016, initiating unprecedented repressive measures against the Uyghur people and ideological purges against so-called “two-faced” Uyghur officials, the source said the two men were targeted for failing to speak out in mobilization meetings against religious “extremism” and “separatism” in the region.
The term “two-faced” is regularly applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty.”
The source said that Hesen and Ahmet were eventually tried and convicted for having “watched a documentary in English” about the June 4, 1989 military crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing—discussion of which is banned by the government.
Officials from the Hotan government Communist Party Committee and the Keriye county government office said they did not know Hesen or Ahmet, or hung up the phone when asked by RFA about their cases.
But an official with the United Front Work Department of Hotan confirmed to RFA that the two men had been convicted on the charges in May last year, but that their downfall was a result of their lack of enthusiasm for Chen’s new policies.
“They were officially charged and sentenced as ‘two-faced’ officials for watching a ‘June 4 Tiananmen Massacre’ video in English online,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“But the real reason for their arrest and sentencing was because they were not proactive in past ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns, and especially in sending Uyghurs to political detention centers.”
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Reports suggest that authorities are detaining as many Uyghurs as possible in re-education camps and jail, regardless of their age, prior service to the Communist Party, or the severity of the accusations against them—as part of a bid to satisfy “quotas” ordered by the regional government.
Those who fail to meet the detention quotas face official scrutiny and, in some cases, are sent off to the camps themselves.
Party faithful targeted
Uyghur sources in exile, who had previously lived in Keriye county, told RFA they were surprised to learn that Hesen and Ahmet had been jailed, but said their cases show that not even those Uyghurs who pledge allegiance to the state are safe from its policies against their ethnic group.
A man from the county, who asked to remain unnamed, said he had recently learned of their arrests from friends who still live there.
“They were well-respected in the community and people looked up to them, so we were saddened to hear this news,” he said.
“In this current political climate, despite not committing any crimes, they were targeted and imprisoned simply because they are Uyghur.”
Zumuret, a Norway-based political observer who had previously worked in Kiriye, said she knew both men well, and that their jailing had sown fear among local Uyghurs.
“The government is arresting its own cadres, who they have approved and promoted over the years, so you can imagine what is like for ordinary citizens,” she said.
Zumuret suggested that the two men were targeted because they had been given access to sensitive information about policies in the XUAR after rising to prominent government positions.
“It is convenient for the government to accuse them of helping their own people and giving secrets to others,” she said, adding that the authorities can easily “lock up anyone whom they consider to be a threat to their regime.”
“Simply being Uyghur is becoming a crime.”
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of XUAR residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some Uyghur activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.
Last month, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Chris Smith—the chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China—called on U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to visit Xinjiang and gather information on the detention of Uyghurs, which they termed "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.