Uyghur county in China has highest prison rate in the worldMay 16, 2022
Nearly one in 25 people in a county in the Uyghur heartland of China has been sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges, in what is the highest known imprisonment rate in the world, an Associated Press review of leaked data shows.
A list obtained and partially verified by the AP cites the names of more than 10,000 Uyghurs sent to prison in just Konasheher county alone, one of dozens in southern Xinjiang. In recent years, China has waged a brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority, which it has described as a war on terror.
The list is by far the biggest to emerge to date with the names of imprisoned Uyghurs, reflecting the sheer size of a Chinese government campaign by which an estimated million or more people were swept into internment camps and prisons. It also confirms what families and rights groups have said for years: China is relying on a system of long-term incarceration to keep the Uyghurs in check, wielding the law as a weapon of repression.
Uyghur farmer Rozikari Tohti was known as a soft-spoken, family-loving man with three children and not the slightest interest in religion. So his cousin, Mihrigul Musa, was shocked to discover Tohti had been thrown into prison for five years for “religious extremism.” She said she knew others more likely to be swept up in Xinjiang’s crackdown on religion, such as another cousin who prayed every week, but not Tohti.
“Never did I think he would be arrested,” said Musa, who now lives in exile in Norway. “If you saw him, you would feel the same way. He is so earnest.”
From the list, Musa found out Tohti’s younger brother Abilikim Tohti also was sentenced to seven years on charges of “gathering the public to disturb social order.” Tohti’s next-door neighbor, a farmer called Nurmemet Dawut, was sentenced to 11 years on the same charges as well as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
Konasheher county is typical of rural southern Xinjiang, and more than 267,000 people live there. The prison sentences across the county were for two to 25 years, with an average of nine years, the list shows. While the people on the list were mostly arrested in 2017, according to Uyghurs in exile, their sentences are so long that the vast majority would still be in prison.
Those swept up came from all walks of life, and included men, women, young people and the elderly. They had only one thing in common: They were all Uyghurs.
The list does not include people with typical criminal charges such as homicide or theft. Rather, it focuses on offenses related to terrorism, religious extremism or vague charges traditionally used against political dissidents, such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” This means the true number of people imprisoned is almost certainly higher.
But even at a conservative estimate, Konasheher county’s imprisonment rate is more than 10 times higher than that of the United States, one of the world’s leading jailers, according to Department of Justice statistics. It’s also more than 30 times higher than for China as a whole, according to state statistics from 2013, the last time such figures were released.
Although China makes legal records easily accessible otherwise, almost 90% of criminal records in Xinjiang are not public.
The handful which have leaked show that people are being charged with “terrorism” for acts such as warning colleagues against watching porn and swearing, or praying in prison. In the most egregious cases, camp detainees were forced to confess their “crimes” in group sham trials and transferred to prisons, with no independent lawyers to defend them.
Another Uyghur from the township of Bulaqsu now living in exile said he knew 100 people on the list, including neighbors and cousins. Included were fathers and sons, both sentenced to jail, said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from Chinese authorities.
Abduweli Ayup, the Uyghur exile who passed the list to the AP, has closely documented the ongoing repression of his community. But this list in particular floored him: On it were neighbors, a cousin, a high school teacher.
“I had collapsed,” Ayup said. “I had told other people’s stories …. and now this is me telling my own story from my childhood.”
The widely admired teacher, Adil Tursun, was the only one in the high school in Toquzaq who could teach Uyghur students in Chinese. He was a Communist Party member who had previously won a Model Worker award, and he tutored children during his free time. Every year, the students from his class had the best chemistry test scores in the town.
The names of Tursun and others on the list made no sense to Ayup because they were considered model Uyghurs. Some were even eager to assimilate into the Han Chinese mainstream.