A Uyghur teenager sentenced to life in prison for “leading a terrorist group” in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region is the wrongful victim of a “strike hard” campaign to crack down on members of the Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority group, according to his father.
Eighteen-year-old Eli Mamut, from Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Aykol township—the site of a deadly police action on a Uyghur crowd in August 2013—is innocent and a victim of the tense situation in the region, his father Mamut Awut told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“My son did nothing wrong—he simply watched videos on his cell phone,” he said. “I believe he had no idea that the videos are classified as illegal by the authorities.”
The family has not been able to do anything about the situation other than pray, Awut said.
Mamut, then 17, was attending Aksu Technical School when authorities detained him and nine of his classmates at the end of September 2014 for watching Uyghur-language videos on their cell phones, he said.
“I heard about my son’s detention a week [after he was apprehended] from the parents of his classmates,” Awut said.
When Awut called Mamut’s teachers about the incident, they told him that the police were questioning the students about accessing the internet from their cell phones.
At the time, the teachers told him that the students could be released soon after clarifications were made about the materials they had watched, he said.
But later, the teachers themselves became fearful and refused to take Awut’s calls, he added.
When RFA recently contacted one of the teachers at the school, he said police had detained 13 people, not nine, for internet access offenses.
“It is clear that the so-called [terrorist] groups have done nothing,” said the teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The teacher said that Mamut and several of his classmates had gathered in his dormitory to share information he was interested in.
“Maybe some of the content was deemed sensitive by authorities, but for students their age it was not,” he said.
“All the teachers believe that local authorities victimized the students as they have done to others in the city to show their loyalty to their higher-ups and support to the strike hard campaign.”
When teachers stopped answering his calls, Awut went to the police department in Aksu, but he could not locate the right office or the officers whose duty it was to answer questions about his son’s whereabouts, he said.
‘Given a life sentence’
It was only after Mamut had spent four months in detention that Awut received a notice from the No. 3 Regional Forced Labor Camp Administration, which read: “Eli Mamut has been relocated from a detention center in Aksu to our camp in order to implement his life sentence [for] … leading a terrorist group.”
The notice is the only official information that Mamut’s family received about his conviction, Awut said.
Eight of his classmates received sentences ranging from two to 20 years in prison for “participating in a terrorist group,” he said.
“But nobody knows the organization’s name, its program and goals, or what it has done wrong,” he said.
Later, Awut had learned that Mamut’s trial had been held during the first week of January 2015.
He returned to the Aksu police department and demanded that he be shown evidence supporting the charge against his son, he said.
But the officers refused to answer him and threatened to throw him in jail as well, he said.
One police officer pushed him out, saying, “You should take care of your other children,” Awut said.
Awut said he believed his son, who was born in August 1997, had been handed a heavier sentence because his identification card erroneously listed him as being 18 years old at the time of the trial.
One of Mamut’s classmates, Ablikim Tursun, had received a two-year jail sentence and was placed in a labor camp for teenagers in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, because he was identified as 17 years old when authorities issued the verdict in his trial.
“Actually, my son is the same age as [Tursun], and the difference between what’s listed on his ID card and his real age should have been clear,” Awut said. “But the authorities sentenced him so heavily. I am still in shock as to why they hate us so much.”
Husenjan Tursun, a police officer in Aykol township, told RFA that authorities there were aware of Mamut’s life sentence, but said he did not know the official charges the teenager was convicted of because the case was handled by police in Aksu city.
“We were not involved in the case, because Eli Mamut was in a boarding school in Aksu city,” he said.
When RFA contacted the Aksu city police department, an officer who declined to provide his name said he knew Mamut had been sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges, but was not aware of the details of the case.
Chinese authorities rolled out the “strike hard” campaign across Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region following a deadly suicide bombing in May 2014 in the regional capital Urumqi, which they blamed on Uyghur separatists.
The campaign has 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.
Aykol township became a major focus of a crackdown by Chinese authorities after a violent incident that occurred there during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in July and early August 2013, which left at least three people dead and 50 injured when authorities fired on a crowd of Uyghur protesters.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.