HONG KONG—A court in China’s troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang has handed a life sentence to a Uyghur youth for alleged murder during July 2009 unrest, but rights groups and relatives say his trial was unfair and he may have been tortured.
Chinese authorities in the Silk Road town of Aksu [in Chinese, Akesu] detained Noor-Ul-Islam Sherbaz on July 27 in the wake of rioting in Urumqi, when he was just 17.
“I think under severe torture my son was forced to sign the confession,” Noor-Ul-Islam’s father Sherbaz Khan, who is a Pakistani national, said.
He said his son was convicted after his image appeared on security cameras in downtown Urumqi, the regional capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), on the night that Uyghurs demonstrated for an investigation into the deaths of two Uyghur migrants in southern China.
“On July 5, my son left the house to attend the entrance examination for the third year of high school,” Khan said.
“On his way back home, the demonstration was taking place. He was very interested in the demonstration and at this point his image was captured in the security camera.”
“I have asked my son whether he participated in the demonstration, and he told me ‘I was very afraid and returned home immediately.’”
The Aksu Intermediate People’s Court handed down the life sentence on April 13, following a trial that lasted just 30 minutes, according to rights group Amnesty International.
He was found guilty of “murder (or intentional homicide)” and “provoking an incident” under Articles 232 and 293 of China’s Criminal Law.
Noor-Ul-Islam had been held incommunicado since his detention, Amnesty International said in a statement on its Web site.
“Police informed his family that he was detained because of his alleged participation in demonstrations in Urumqi on 5 July 2009 and told them that a boy of his build was suspected of attacking people with stones,” the group said.
According to the statement, the court was shown video footage of a group of Uyghurs beating a man.
“Noor-Ul-Islam Sherbaz was not present in the group beating the man in the video nor is he shown on the video carrying a stone,” the Amnesty statement said.
“The video does, however, show him on the same street.”
The group said the conviction appears to have been secured on the basis of a second video in which Noor-Ul-Islam confessed to killing someone.
“It is possible that his confession was extracted through torture,” Amnesty International said, adding that he was given legal representation and planned to appeal the verdict.
Sherbaz Khan called for outside pressure on the Chinese authorities.
“My son is innocent,” said Sherbaz Khan, who had been working as a vendor on the streets of Urumqi to send his son to university.
“The Chinese authorities have constantly called me and threatened me,” he added.
“They said, ‘If you try to inform foreign organizations about the situation of your son, he will be punished more severely’.”
He said his son was spared the death sentence because the authorities claimed he had confessed to his crime.
“There are thousands and thousands of innocent Uyghurs like my son suffering in Chinese prisons,” Khan said.
“I’m confident that justice will prevail and my son will be proven innocent. He is still a teenager,” he said.
Noor-Ul-Islam was a student at the No. 3 High School in Urumqi who was planning to go to university.
Khan said his wife Pashayim had lost her job after her son’s detention became known.
Official records say that nearly 200 people died in the July violence in Urumqi, the majority of them “innocent Han Chinese killed by angry mobs,” with more than 1,600 people injured in the violence, which came from both ethnic groups.
Uyghur eyewitnesses have accused the security forces of using excessive force on unarmed demonstrators, including beatings, the use of teargas, and shooting directly into crowds of protesters, with many Uyghur deaths ignored by official media reports.
China reported last August to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that they were holding 718 people in connection with the July unrest and in December they announced the arrest of an additional 94 people during a “strike hard” campaign in Xinjiang.
Campaign-style law enforcement, known in China as “strike hard” campaigns, are commonplace in Xinjiang, putting police, prosecutors, and judges under pressure to secure speedy convictions.
Rights groups contend that this short-circuits judicial process and removes legal protections.
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the XUAR in northwestern China.
Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in July 2009 in rioting that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Original reporting in Uyghur by Medine. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.