Reports on Xinjiang Detail Criminalization of Islam, Retroactive Punishment

On the sidelines of the Two Sessions this week, Xinjiang Party Secretary Ma Xingrui declared that “Islam in Xinjiang needs to be Sinicised,” adding, “this is an inevitable trend.” His statements were another sign of the CCP’s resolve to crack down on religious freedoms in the region, part of a years-long campaign that has detained over a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. It has been over a year and a half since the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that this campaign may have constituted “crimes against humanity,” and new evidence continues to emerge about the extrajudicial nature of detentions related to religious and cultural practices in Xinjiang

Last month, a Uyghur Human Rights Project report on Uyghur women and religious persecution highlighted the retroactive application of prison sentences for alleged crimes relating to religious practices that occurred when the accused were children. This week in ChinaFile, Darren Byler described in detail another case of retroactive application of the law targeting a Kazakh cleric named Nurlan Pioner, whose normal religious practices were reinterpreted by judges as crimes punishable by a 17-year prison sentence: 

Pioner’s verdict is one of the most detailed official government accounts available of the way routine Islamic practice has been criminalized across Xinjiang. His case shows how prosecutors and judges reimagine the past activities of Muslim communities, once accepted by the state, as the behavior of “evil gangs.” The verdict presents evidence against Pioner and a Uyghur bookseller named Tokhti Silam, who the prosecutors say together led dozens of people in the community to practice extremism. It describes in granular detail activities labeled instances of extremism, books that foster extremist thought, how homes and devices were searched for extremist content, even who drove in which cars to religious events and the student status of young people who illegally fasted during Ramadan.

Most importantly, it shows in explicit detail how “crimes” committed before they were deemed illegal have been retroactively prosecuted. As the legal state-appointed defenders for Silam state in the verdict, “Judging from the year and a month of the criminal charges, all the crimes committed by the defendant occurred between 1994 and 1995 and between 2011 and 2015. At that time, the relevant laws and regulations had not yet been promulgated, and legal publicity work had not yet been implemented. Therefore, during this period there was a widespread lack of awareness of legal responsibilities in society. Every legal provision related to this case was announced and implemented after 2015.”

[…] Pioner’s verdict shows that in the rhetoric of the court, the “evil” of “criminal gangs” or religious Kazakhs and Uyghurs has been hiding in plain sight in the books, published by state presses, that had been on the shelves across the region for decades. [Source]

In related news, the Xinjiang Victims Database published a blog post this week analyzing a leaked database that it calls the “2009-2015 Prisoners List,” containing information regarding over 18,000 Uyghur individuals who were sentenced to prison mostly on political and/or religious charges. Many of these charges referenced normal religious practices. The vast majority of the prisoners were sentenced before 2015 and given sentences that extended beyond 2017, when mass detentions in Xinjiang began. Moreover, the blog post demonstrates how almost all of the prisoners released before 2017 were likely re-detained as a result of their previous sentences:

In 140 cases, it has been possible to follow up and see, through other sources, what happened to those prisoners after 2015, and especially following their scheduled releases. In almost all cases, we see that these people were detained again, sometimes immediately after, often being sent to camp or simply being given new prison terms.

[…] For areas where complete or near-complete detention information for the more recent years is available, it is also possible to see how the victims’ detentions were correlated with detentions of their relatives and the situations of their children, some of whom were left without parents as a result.

[…] Collating the data for the relevant areas, we see that over half of the prisoners had direct relatives (spouses, siblings, parents, or children) who were also detained, in most cases in 2017 or after, thereby showing that the sentences were not simply individual incidents with no relation to the remainder of the family. For many families, the prison sentence was a precursor, prior to more people from the family being taken in the mass detentions of 2017-2018.

[…] In approximately a sixth of the cases, underage children of the prisoner would also be left without parents for a certain period of time. In a small fraction of cases, this was because the prisoner was the only known parent in the household. However, in the majority of cases, this was the result of the prisoner’s spouse also being detained (often in 2017 or later). [Source]

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk had an opportunity to address some of the abuses in Xinjiang during a “global update” speech he gave to the Human Rights Council this week. In his paragraph about China, Türk described his continued dialogue with the Chinese government on various issues. He added, “I also call on the Government to implement the recommendations made by my Office and other human rights bodies in relation to laws, policies and practises that violate fundamental rights, including in the Xinjiang and Tibet regions.” But as Adile Abelet reported for RFA, China human-rights experts feel that Türk’s efforts have been underwhelming:

Sophie Richardson, former China director of Human Rights Watch, called Türk’s address “a weak performance,” saying he seemed “completely unmotivated by the agony and the pressure and the abuses that people across China are enduring.”

“I find it deeply worrying that he seems to be relying on tools and tactics that are, I think, well established to be ineffective, particularly dialogues,” she told RFA. “I think it’s also very worrying that he won’t even refer to his own office’s report on the Uyghur region and the conclusion that there may potentially be crimes against humanity committed by the Chinese government.” 

“Thirty years of human rights dialogs have clearly enabled crimes against humanity, not prevented them,” Richardson said. [Source]

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has attempted to whitewash its abuses by encouraging tourism to Xinjiang (along with Han “colonization”), hoping visitors will see a sanitized version of life in the region. U.S. officials have taken note. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken released on Thursday, the co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) urged the State Department to raise its travel advisory to Xinjiang to level 4, arguing that “American citizens and permanent residents, companies, and other entities should be warned about the risk of enabling atrocity crimes if they participate in tourism to [Xinjiang].” CECC leaders also wrote to three U.S.-based travel agencies and asked them to stop any tours in Xinjiang, stating that “well-intentioned tourists should not be put in the position of condoning or supporting atrocities – or be used as propaganda pawns.” 

U.S. media companies have played a supporting role in whitewashing abuses in Xinjiang, as well. Writing for China Media Project this week, Dalia Parete analyzed the latest collaboration between the Discovery Channel and CGTN on a series titled “World’s Ultimate Frontier” that features “a cast of starry-eyed foreigners marveling at the sights, sounds, and tastes of the region” and ignoring the human rights abuses taking place there. Parete described the Discovery Channel’s history of co-producing with the CCP, and its role in furthering China’s external propaganda goals:

In an article published in May last year in the pages of Research on Ideological and Political Work (思想政治工作研究), a journal published by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, China Media Group chief Shen Haixiong (慎海雄) — himself a deputy propaganda minister — highlighted World’s Ultimate Frontier as an essential “external communication brand” for the Party.

“We have worked to build a Chinese discourse and a Chinese narrative system, so as to make the image of a credible, lovable and respected China more vivid and lively,” said Shen, directly referencing remarks on global propaganda Xi Jinping made at a collective study session of the Politburo two years earlier. Shen continued by saying that CMG would “optimize mechanisms of cooperation with international mainstream media, creating such foreign communication brands as Entering Xinjiang and Rooted in China.” This passage by the head of the group overseeing Discovery’s co-production partner, CGTN, clearly indicates that the Entering Xinjiang (World’s Ultimate Frontier) program was conceived on the Chinese side as directly serving the external propaganda goals of the state.

[…F]rom China’s standpoint, the ultimate goal of the series is to distract global audiences with spectacle and banter, turning their eyes away from the real and tragic story facing many thousands of Uyghurs that have been incarcerated, displaced, exiled, and painfully separated from their loved ones in the ongoing campaign of repression. [Source]

Correction: This post was updated on March 9, 2024 to clarify the ethnicity of Nurlan Pioner and the proportion of charges that referenced normal religious practices in the “2009-2015 Prisoners List.”


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