An imam and eight farmers from a village in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture are serving prison sentences from seven to nine years for practicing their religion during China’s “strike hard” campaign to crack down on ethnic Uyghurs in the country’s restive northwestern Xinjiang region, according to local residents and officials.
The imam, Eziz Emet, 47, who was arrested in May 2015, received a nine-year sentence last September for teaching religion illegally in the prefecture’s Peyshenbebazar village, while the farmers each received a seven-year sentence for praying together in places that authorities had not designated for Muslim worship, according to information recently obtained by RFA’s Uyghur Service.
Among the farmers were Turdi Mamut, 57, Turdi Abla, 35, Tursun Mamut, 61, Ismail Awut, 62, Ablikim Tursun, 17, Exet Awut, 25, Abla Awut, 59, and Memet Setirash,42, all of whom authorities arrested in September of 2014 and sentenced last February, said Mamut Awut, security chairman of Peyshenbebazar village.
Although the sentencings occurred six to 13 months ago, a letter from a village resident sent recently to RFA said the imam and the farmers had now joined the ranks of political prisoners who number one per every three families in Peyshenbebazar—an unusually high figure for a village where about 300 families comprise a population of 1,500 people.
“I know that eight farmers were sentenced for seven years for praying together,” Awut said. “We warned them not to say Friday prayers separately, not following the designated imam, but they had prayed on Fridays together in different places four times in six months."
The farmers also had organized religious gatherings at other people’s homes, he said.
‘Strike hard’ begins
After a deadly suicide bombing in May 2014 in Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi, Chinese authorities, who blamed the attack on Uyghur separatists, rolled out the strike hard campaign to crack down on members of the Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority group.
The campaign included 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.
It was during this time that authorities in Aykol township deemed the Peyshenbebazar village farmers’ private prayer sessions at places they had not officially designated for worship as a sign of religious extremism, Awut said.
As a result, the men were arrested and indicted on religion extremism charges, he said.
“They were all obedient people, … but because they prayed separately instead of following the government-designated imam, they were wrong,” Awut said. “It was a clear expression of dissatisfaction with the government.”
Awut, who helped local police conduct the search and arrest operations, said he “never imagined that they would be sentenced for years.”
Because most of the farmers have three or four young children, their wives have had to take on work as hired hands to support their families while their husbands are in prison, he said.
When RFA contacted the Aykol township police station, an officer who declined to give his name said he did not know exactly how many people from the village were behind bars.
But he confirmed that the number of political prisoners in the village was higher than it was in other places, because of a protest by Uyghurs on Aug. 8, 2013, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when authorities fired on a crowd, killing at least three people and injuring 50 others.
After the violent incident, Aykol township became a major focus of a crackdown by Chinese authorities, who rolled out the strike hard campaign the following year to stamp out acts of terrorism or Islamic extremism in Xinjiang.
Since then, local police have carried out more investigations and arrests of Uyghurs in Peyshenbebazar, according to officials and residents.
The trials during which the farmers were sentenced were not open to public, although some family members were allowed to attend, said prisoner Turdi Mamut’s 52-year-old wife Ayshigul, who was present at the sentencings.
“”I did not hear anything that indicated that these eight people committed any crimes, but only prayed together outside the government-designated mosque,” she said.
“I was baffled,” she said. “There were no religiously educated people who could interpret the Quran among them. Their knowledge of Islam is merely sufficient for them to fulfill the required prayers five times a day.”
She added that she did not know why the farmers were considered a national security threat, because they were not involved in any other religious activities.
“The whole neighborhood was shocked” by their arrest, she said.
Mamut Awut also said he assisted with the arrest of imam Eziz Emet when a local police officer who only gave his first name Gheyret came to the village at the end of last April to apprehend him.
When Emet, who is a government-designated iman, insisted that he had not committed any crime, Awut told him that he need not be afraid if he hadn’t done anything wrong and could clear up any misunderstandings.
Afterwards, when neither Awut nor Emet’s family received any information about him from police, some recently released prisoners informed them that Emet had been sentenced to nine years for illegally teaching religion to students, he said.
Although Emet had taught some teenagers how to read the Quran and some Quranic verses for praying, he had not imparted anything concerning extremist beliefs or ideology that went against the government’s policies, Awut said.
“I do not know why the government was suspicious about him,” Awut said, adding that teaching a few teenagers how to read the Quran is deemed normal practice.
“He did it during the strike hard campaign—that is why,” he said.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.