Authorities in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region have sentenced to prison nearly two dozen Uyghurs for illegal religious activities and other infractions in a move condemned by Uyghur exile groups as part of what they call the persecution of the ethnic minority group.
Twenty-two Uyghurs, including Muslim religious leaders accused of preaching illegally, received jail terms ranging from five to 16 years at a public sentencing in the western Xinjiang town of Kashgar, according to Chinese state media.
Some of the religious leaders sentenced had been relieved of their positions, the reports said. Other Uyghurs were accused of inciting ethnic hatred, using superstition to undermine the law, starting quarrels to provoke trouble, and rape.
The World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of exiled Uyghur groups headquartered in Germany, condemned the sentencing and accused Chinese authorities of religious repression and rights abuses.
Dilxat Raxit, the organization’s spokesman, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that Chinese authorities timed the crackdown to coincide with the Nov. 11 anniversary of the founding of the East Turkestan republics in 1933 and 1945.
Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, because the region had come under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
“The Chinese authorities have chosen this sensitive time with a specific political purpose, because today is the anniversary for the local Uyghurs to have established two republics,” he said Tuesday.
He also said authorities decided to crack down on the Uyghurs while Beijing hosted the leadership meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to send a message to the international community that it has no plans to change governing policies in Xinjiang.
“Through the high-profile sentencing, the Chinese government is declaring to the international community that a policy of repression against Uyghurs will continue,” he said. “They [government officials] will not change."
Authorities have intensified security measures on the ground in the regional capital Urumqi as well, according to local sources.
“On major streets in Urumqi, there are armed police and special police officers holding guns at guard posts,” a resident surnamed Zhang told RFA.
“In addition, there are so-called stability maintenance personnel stationed on the streets, wearing red armbands. At bus stops, the authorities have set up fixed security booths.”
The Xinjiang region, home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule there, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
The latest crackdown is believed to be part of the regional government’s yearlong campaign, which began in May, in response to a series of deadly attacks that Chinese authorities have blamed on religious extremists.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service and Qiao Long of RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.