government has built a vast network of re-education camps and a pervasive
system of surveillance to monitor and subdue millions from Muslim minorities in
the Xinjiang region.
is also turning to an older, harsher method of control: filling prisons in
in northwest China has experienced a record surge in arrests, trials and prison
sentences in the past two years, according to a New York Times analysis of
previously unreported official data.
Chinese government pursues a “strike hard” security campaign aimed
overwhelmingly at minorities in Xinjiang, the use of prisons is throwing into
doubt even China’s limited protections of defendants’ rights.
Xinjiang — where largely Muslim minorities, including Uighurs and Kazakhs, make
up more than half of the population — sentenced a total of 230,000 people to
prison or other punishments in 2017 and 2018, significantly more than in any
other period on record in decades for the region.
sentences in Xinjiang have shot up since 2014, when violent antigovernment
attacks reached a peak.
share of defendants in Xinjiang were sentenced to prison terms of 5 years or
longer in 2017 compared to those in other areas of China.
accounted for less than 2% of China's population but 21% of arrests in 2017, a
sharp increase in its share of arrests from a decade ago.
alone, Xinjiang courts sentenced almost 87,000 defendants, 10 times more than
the previous year, to prison terms of five years or longer. Arrests increased
eightfold; prosecutions fivefold.
rights advocates and exiled Uighur activists say that Chinese officials have
swept aside rudimentary protections in their push. The police, prosecutors and
judges in the region are working in unison to ram through convictions, serving
the Communist Party’s campaign to eradicate unrest and convert the largely
Muslim minorities into loyalists of the party.
the critics said, are often based on flimsy or exaggerated charges, and trials
are perfunctory, with guilty judgments overwhelmingly likely. Once sentenced,
prisoners face potential abuses and hard labor in overcrowded, isolated
what we’re seeing is an amazing jump in numbers,” Donald C. Clarke, a professor
at the George Washington University Law School who specializes in Chinese law,
said in an interview after reviewing the statistics.
impossible to imagine that even if a judge in Xinjiang wanted to give a fair
hearing to a defendant, that such a thing would be possible,” said Professor
Clarke, who has written about the mass detentions in Xinjiang. “If they’re not
having mass trials, then what they’re having is, essentially, judges giving
blank documents to the police or prosecutors so they can just fill in the
like other parts of China, does not disclose how many people are in prison, and
the regional government did not answer faxed questions about incarceration and
the legal statistics. Not all the people imprisoned in Xinjiang are from Muslim
minorities, and not all charges are baseless.
The wave of
arrests, prosecutions and sentences, however, points to an enormous up swell in
imprisonment. It also appears unequalled in China’s recent past, based on
official reports going back decades.
“It’s as if
the whole population is treated as guilty until proven innocent,” said Sean R.
Roberts, an anthropologist at George Washington University who studies Uighurs,
whose religion, Turkic language and traditions set them apart from China’s Han
majority. “These internment camps and prisons are not going away and stand as a
warning to the population that they better be more loyal to the party.”
in Xinjiang, which has 24.5 million residents, far outpace comparable Chinese
provinces. By contrast, Inner Mongolia, a northeast region of China that has
roughly the same size population, including a large ethnic minority, sentenced
33,000 people last year.
residents have been largely spared from the wave of detentions, according to
experts as well as data from Han-majority parts of Xinjiang. Arrests and
indictments in areas run by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps — a
quasi-military administration overseeing areas with an 85 percent Han
population — rose modestly or remained flat in 2017.
have generally borne the worst” of security campaigns since the late 1990s,
Professor Roberts said. “It can be assumed that they were targeted inordinately
in the arrests that have taken place since 2017.”
student, Buzainafu Abudourexiti, 27, was sentenced to seven years in prison in
Xinjiang in 2017.
husband, Almas Nizamidin, a Uighur who migrated to Australia a decade ago, had been
trying to secure a visa for her to join him. He said his wife was convicted of
assembling a crowd to disturb public order, calling it a trumped-up offense.
Her real offense, he said, seemed to be that she had studied in Egypt for two
years, a country that China later deemed off limits to Uighurs.
single Uighur person can tell you they’ve lost someone, but when it’s your wife
and she was waiting to leave China, it’s especially hard,” said Mr. Nizamidin,
28, now a building contractor in Adelaide. They were high school sweethearts,
and she was learning English to migrate to Australia when arrested, he said.
worried about her, because there’s been no information,” Mr. Nizamidin said.
“Everyone is talking about the camps, even at the U.N., but the prisons are
taking in more and more, and they’re under even stricter control.”
expanding population in prisons raises questions about Xinjiang officials’
recent avowals that most of the inmates in re-education camps — a separate
system of incarceration — have been released.
activists and overseas Uighurs with relatives in the camps have disputed
Beijing’s claim that the camps are shrinking. Interviews and government
documents indicate that former camp inmates may be pressed into assigned labor
or other kinds of detention.
living abroad who spoke with The Times said a sizable fraction of people held
in re-education camps end up in prisons, citing messages from relatives still
in Xinjiang. Detainees, they said, have been arrested and convicted after
interrogators in the camps decided that they had committed offenses and sent
them for criminal investigation.
willing to play along, and you work hard to show your loyalty to the Communist
Party, then maybe you can move into less coercive detention,” said James
Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University in Australia who has
studied the security offensive in Xinjiang. “But if you show any signs of
resistance, it’s escalated to formal imprisonment.”
Xinjiang has been tight for years. In 2009, hundreds were killed during ethnic
riots in the regional capital, Urumqi, prompting the government to start
instituting harsher policies.
took the security drive to new extremes after Xi Jinping became China’s top
leader in 2012 and demanded an end to the increasingly bloody anti-Chinese
attacks by Uighurs. These attacks had spilled into other areas of China,
including an assault in 2014, when perpetrators with knives killed 31 people
near a train station. Prisons and re-education camps became weapons in the
government’s offensive to stifle the unrest.
officials started in 2017 to send hundreds of thousands into re-education camps
in Xinjiang, they also ramped up arrests, criminal trials and imprisonments there.
The government exhorted prosecutors and judges to work hand in hand as part of
the “strike hard” campaign to wipe out ethnic attacks and resistance.
accurately, strike harshly, strike well, and be sure that ultimately trials
reflect this,” Zhu Hailun, the top law-and-order official in Xinjiang until
earlier this year, told officials in 2017.
re-education camps, imprisonment requires a court process, however swift and
crude, including a guilty judgment and a penal sentence. The prisons are more
closely guarded than the re-education camps, and inmates are also expected to
data confirms findings last year by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy
group that one in five arrests in China in 2017 took place in Xinjiang.
prosecutors in Xinjiang approved 227,261 arrests, more than eight times as many
as a year earlier, according to a recently released official regional yearbook.
In 2018, they approved an additional 114,023 arrests, an annual report from the
regional prosecution office said. The total number of arrests over these two
years was more than 70 percent higher than the cumulative total for the entire
previous 10 years.
defendants are released as innocent. Xinjiang courts finished hearing 147,272
criminal cases in 2017, a more than fourfold increase from a year earlier,
according to a yearbook of Chinese law. Last year, the courts heard 74,348
cases. They declared just 22 people not guilty.
has been a stark rise in the region’s prison population.
Xinjiang courts sentenced 133,198 people to criminal punishments, even more
than the previous year. Many of the convicted face many years in prison.
receive death sentences, although the number is not publicly known. China does
not release statistics on executions, which international human rights groups
estimate to exceed any other country’s.
of detainees in the re-education camps who end up in prisons is also unclear.
In interviews with The Times, many Uighurs and Kazakhs who have left China said
they had been told of relatives imprisoned, sometimes after being detained in
camps. Among 24 ethnic Kazakhs interviewed in January, six said family members
had been imprisoned since 2017.
fraction of Uighurs sent to prisons were businesspeople, professionals and
academics, said Habibulla Altay, a Uighur tea merchant who left China in 2016
and has settled in Switzerland.
government thinks they are more dangerous, because they have money and knowledge
and often have been abroad,” Mr. Altay said. He added that business friends in
Xinjiang had informed him that one of his brothers-in-law, Aikeremu Tuerxun, a
trade company manager, had been imprisoned.
often don’t know where their loved ones have disappeared,” he said. “Then we
hear that this person was sentenced, or that one is in prison. Almost every
family has this experience.”
towns and cities across Xinjiang stand hulking prisons, many newly built. The
budget of the regional prison administration nearly doubled in 2017, and many
prisons in Xinjiang expanded, construction announcements online show.
the prison system in Xinjiang has struggled to cope with a flood of new
from Radio Free Asia, a Washington-based news service whose Uighur-language
service has reported extensively on Xinjiang, have described trains full of
detainees shipped from the region to prisons in other parts of China.
Xinjiang government has not confirmed those reports. But there are other clues
of a drastic expansion of the region’s prison population.
we’ve endured the hardest, riskiest, most challenging period in the history of
prisons in Xinjiang,” the regional prison authority said in a 2017 message
thanking hundreds of prison officers transferred from other Chinese provinces
to deal with a swelling population of inmates.
satellite images from 23 sites of possible prisons in Xinjiang identified by
Shawn Zhang, a law graduate in Canada who has studied the region’s security
buildup, revealed heavily guarded detention facilities. It was impossible to be
certain if they were prisons, detention centers for suspected criminals,
high-security re-education camps or a combination of such facilities.
features included multiple walls and fences, tall watchtowers and guard
buildings with access to the walls. Nine of the sites had been built since
2016, and 12 previously built facilities had been expanded with new buildings
in that time.
reporters tried this past month to see one such facility on the desert
outskirts of Hotan, a city in southern Xinjiang, guards stopped them. They
claimed that the road was dangerous because of power cables, which they had
just flung across it. When the reporters tried another route, police officers
threw up a roadblock using traffic cones.
tell you that this is a closed road,” an officer said.
was contributed by Paul Mozur in Urumqi, China; Austin Ramzy in Hong Kong; and
Christiaan Triebert and Christoph Koettl in New York.
Chris Buckley covers China, where he has lived
for more than 20 years after growing up in Australia. Before joining The Times
in 2012, he was a correspondent for Reuters.
Headline: China’s Prisons Swell After Deluge of Arrests Engulfs Muslims
Source: The New York Times