China has imprisoned or detained at least 630 imams and other Muslim religious figures since 2014 in its crackdown in the Xinjiang region.
The new research compiled by the rights group the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and shared with the BBC also found that some that disappeared into detention never came out, as evidence showed that 18 clerics have died while in custody of the Chinese authorities or shortly thereafter.
Many of the detained clerics faced broad charges like “propagating extremism”, “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”, and “inciting separatism”, but according to relatives, the real crimes behind these charges are often things like preaching, convening prayer groups, or simply acting as an imam.
In total, the UHRP tracked the fates of 1,046 Muslim clerics — the vast majority of them Uyghurs — using court documents, family testimony and media reports from public and private databases.
While all 1,046 clerics were reportedly detained at some point, in many cases corroborating evidence was not available because of China’s tight control over information in the region.
Among the 630 cases, at least 304 of the clerics appeared to have been sent to prison, as opposed to the network of “re-education” camps most closely associated with China’s mass detention of the Uyghurs.
Where information was available from court documents or testimony about the length of the prison sentence, the punishments reflect the harsh nature of Xinjiang justice: 96% sentenced to at least five years and 26% to 20 years or more, including 14 life sentences.
China is believed to have detained more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, a large region in north-western China that is home to various ethnically Turkic peoples. The state has been accused of human rights abuses in the region, including forced labour, sterilisation and rape.
Most of those detained in Xinjiang are sent to “re-education” facilities — prison-like camps where they are held for indeterminate periods of time without charge. But others have been given formal prison sentences, the number and severity of which have increased dramatically since 2017.
Extremism charges were being issued on a “flimsy legal basis” in Xinjiang for “offences that shouldn’t even qualify as offences”, said Donald Clarke, a professor at George Washington University who specialises in Chinese law.
“Setting to one side for a moment whether you accept ‘propagating extremism’ as a valid charge, the question is do the facts make a plausible case for that charge?” he said. “And the alleged offences we have seen — things like having a beard, not drinking, or travelling abroad — suggest they don’t.”
The real reason imams were targeted was “because of their ability to bring people together in the community”, said Peter Irwin, senior programme officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
“The state has been carefully dealing with imams for a long time because it knows the influence they have,” he said. “The detentions and imprisonments of the past few years are just the culmination of three decades of repression designed to constrict Uyghur culture and religion.”
A spokesman for the Chinese government told the BBC that Xinjiang “enjoys unprecedented freedom of religious belief”.
“Xinjiang’s ‘de-radicalisation’ effort has effectively contained the spread of religious extremism and made a great contribution to global ‘de-radicalisation’ efforts,” he said.
In late 2019, as its network of “re-education” camps drew intense international scrutiny, China claimed it had released everyone from the system. Significant numbers had been released, into house arrest or into the otherwise controlled environment of Xinjiang, but rights groups say many were simply transferred to formal prisons.
There is also evidence that many thousands had been in prison all along. Incarceration rates exploded in Xinjiang in 2017 and 2018, according to reporting by the New York Times and others, sweeping up at least 230,000 people — about 200,000 more than in previous years.
According to Chinese government data, criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for 21% of the country’s total in 2017, despite the region having about 1.5% of the population.
Those who are detained in camps rather than in prison stand a better chance of release after a few months or years, but release in Xinjiang does not necessarily mean freedom. (Source: BBC)