Inside Xinjiang’s Prison StateFebruary 26, 2021
At least three hundred thousand more people have received formal prison sentences between 2017 and 2019 than in typical previous years, according to an analysis of government documents, public sentencing records, and testimonies conducted by Gene Bunin, the founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database. In 2018, family members of some detainees in Xinjiang learned that their relatives were now serving long prison sentences for offenses such as “propagating extremism” (fourteen years) and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (nineteen years).
Firsthand descriptions of criminal trials in Xinjiang are rare. Amirken, the Kazakh hairdresser who married into a prominent religious family, told me that she attended the trial of her brother-in-law, Nurlan Pioner, an imam in the Altai Mountains near Mongolia. For years, Pioner had avoided trouble with authorities. He received training and a certificate from the state-run madrasa in Ürümqi and worked closely with Party officials, who approved his Friday-night sermons and his scholarly work translating religious books from Arabic into Kazakh. Nevertheless, Pioner was detained in June, 2017, and put on trial a year later. His family received a twenty-three-page prewritten judgment of his case. When the proceedings began, two guards with rifles carried Pioner into the courtroom in a chair. The accused was wearing a blue prison uniform that was soiled with urine. He appeared malnourished and was unable to walk; he spoke incoherently. The judge read the prewritten verdict. It said that Pioner was arrested for “gathering a crowd to instigate social disorder; taking advantage of extremism to hold back law enforcement; [and] illegally obtaining materials which propagate [an] extremist ideology.” He was sentenced to seventeen years in prison. According to researchers, Pioner’s case reflected the criminalization of religious practice in Xinjiang.
A month after his conviction, Pioner was temporarily released into medical house arrest. While detained, he had developed upper- and lower-limb amyotrophy and lost the ability to control his body. “He had become almost a vegetable,” Amirken recalled. “He couldn’t hear. He couldn’t talk.” Fearing that they, too, would be arrested, Amirken and her family fled to Kazakhstan in January, 2018. Ten months after they left, law-enforcement officers returned Pioner to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence.