Authorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region have jailed the four wealthiest ethnic Uyghurs in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city for acts of “religious extremism,” according to an official, amid a crackdown he said is unlikely to end any time soon.
A source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that Abdujelil Hajim, Gheni Haji, Memet Tursun Haji, and Imin Hajim—all successful business owners in Kashgar—were taken into custody in May 2017.
The four men, whose last names signify that they have made the Muslim holy pilgrimage to Mecca, were later sentenced to a total of 42 years in prison, the source said.
Chairman of the Kashgar Prefectural Trade Association Abdujelil Hajim—who owns a firm that transports goods between China, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as large tracts of property in Kashgar and Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi—was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Gheni Haji, the owner of the Emin Trading Plaza at Kashgar’s Sunday Market; Memet Tursun Haji, owner of Eziz Diyar Plaza at the same market; and Imin Hajim, owner of the Ibnsina Dental Facility; were each sentenced to eight years in jail, according to the source.
The source’s claims were verified earlier this week by Yasinahun, the chief of security for Kashgar’s Chasa township, who confirmed that the four men topped the list of the city’s wealthiest Uyghurs and that they had all been arrested in May, although he was unable to say where they are being held.
“Gheni Haji, Imin Hajim, and Memet Tursun Haji had displayed signs of religious extremism, so they were arrested,” he told RFA in a phone interview, adding that their activities were characterized as “abnormal” by authorities.
“I was told that Memet Tursun Haji did not hold a funeral when his father passed away. Not holding a funeral is one of the signs of extremism. Gheni and Imin prayed only eight times at prayer service, not 20 as others usually do. That is also a sign of extremism.”
Imin Hajim, Yasinahun said, is “a man of few words” who normally kept to himself, but had protested police searches of his home.
“He expressed extreme displeasure with our visits to his house related to our security work and said, ‘I am a Chinese citizen, why do you conduct so many searches,’” he said.
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 Yasinahun did not provide the specific reason for Abdujelil Hajim’s arrest, he said that all four men had also undertaken “unapproved, private hajj” pilgrimages and been involved with imams who were not sanctioned by the state.
Since April last year, ethnic Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in political re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Yasinahun said he was unsure of how many people are currently being held in re-education camps in Kashgar city, but that “around 2,000 people” were being held from Chasa alone.
“Most people are being detained at the Yawagh Street detention facility in Kashgar city,” he said.
The security chief also said it was unclear when the campaign of political re-education in Kashgar would end.
“At one of the meetings held in the city, one of the Chinese officials said, ‘you can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one—you need to spray chemicals to kill them all,’” he said.
“He went on to say, ‘re-educating these people is like spraying chemicals on the crops. That is why it is a general re-education, not limited to a few people.’”
“The message I got from this was that the re-education will last a very long time.”
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, told RFA that China has been “targeting all Uyghurs as potential state enemies” since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016.
“Chen has initiated an unprecedented region-wide purge of Uyghur intellectuals, religious figures, businessmen, and any Uyghur who is not pleased with Chinese rule as ‘two-faced’ people,” Isa said.
“He has locked up tens of thousands in the political re-education camps, in much the same way that the Nazis did the Jews, soon after coming to power in Germany,” he added.
“The international community should closely monitor what the Chinese government is doing in [Xinjiang] and express concern, because the Uyghur homeland is now simply a massive concentration camp.”
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 Alim Seytoff and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.