Xinjiang Police Use Quran Verses To Flag Uyghurs For Interrogation, Human Rights Watch Says

A master list of “violent and terrorist” multimedia files Xinjiang police use to flag Uyghurs and other Muslims for interrogation includes common Islamic religious content including Quran verses, according to a new Human Rights Watch investigation. HRW’s findings provide further evidence for the criminalization of basic Islamic practices during the now nearly decade-long “Strike Hard” campaign in Xinjiang

A Human Rights Watch forensic investigation into the metadata of this list found that during 9 months from 2017 to 2018, police conducted nearly 11 million searches of a total of 1.2 million mobile phones in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital city of 3.5 million residents. Xinjiang’s automated police mass surveillance systems enabled this phone search.

“The Chinese government’s abusive use of surveillance technology in Xinjiang means that Uyghurs who simply store the Quran on their phone may trigger a police interrogation,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch. “Concerned governments should identify the technology companies involved in this mass surveillance and social control industry and take appropriate action to end their involvement.”

[…] The Human Rights Watch searches found a total of over 1,000 unique files on about 1,400 Urumqi residents’ phones that matched those on the police master list. The analysis of these matched files revealed that over half of them – 57 percent – appear to be common Islamic religious materials, including readings of every surah (chapter) of the Quran, the central religious text of Islam. [Source

Some of the content on the Xinjiang police master list was indeed gruesome, including beheadings and torture carried out by Mexican cartels, Chechen fighters, and the Islamic State. However, much of the content deemed “violent and terrorist” was simply not. Beyond Quran verses, Xinjiang police also flagged the 1995 documentary film “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” about the 1989 Tiananmen protests, content produced by American state-media outlet Radio Free Asia, and content that mentioned Syria—including two episodes of a popular Chinese travel show widely available on domestic streaming websites.

Reporting on Xinjiang often relies on leaked police files and satellite imagery because on the ground reporting is difficult due to rampant police harassment. That harassment extends beyond the autonomous region’s borders. In what Shanghai police are calling a test case for the whole city, one district is building a big data surveillance tool that would alert police anytime a foreign journalist’s travel records indicate they’ve visited Xinjiang. The system would also “spot Uyghurs coming to Shanghai.” 

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