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Uyghur county in China has the highest prison rate in the world

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BEIJING — Nearly one in 25 people in a county in China’s Uyghur heartland have been sentenced to prison for terrorism-related charges, in what is the highest known imprisonment rate in the world, according to an Associated Press review of data breaches.

A list obtained and partially verified by the AP cites the names of more than 10,000 Uyghurs sent to prison in Konasheher county alone, one of dozens in southern Xinjiang. In recent years, China has carried out a brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs, a majority Muslim minority, which it has described as a war on terror.

The list is by far the longest to emerge to date with the names of imprisoned Uyghurs, reflecting the scale of a Chinese government campaign that has landed an estimated one million or more people in internment camps and prisons. . It also confirms what families and rights groups have been saying for years: China relies on a system of long-term incarceration to control Uyghurs, using the law as a weapon of repression.

Under strong international criticism, the Chinese authorities announced the closure in 2019 of the short-term extrajudicial internment camps where Uyghurs were dumped without charge. However, although attention is focused on the camps, thousands of Uyghurs still languish for years, if not decades, in prison on what experts say are bogus terrorism charges.

Uyghur farmer Rozikari Tohti was known as a soft-spoken, family-loving man with three children and not the slightest interest in religion. Thus, his cousin, Mihrigul Musa, was shocked to discover that Tohti had been imprisoned for five years for “religious extremism”.

“I never thought he would be arrested,” said Musa, who now lives in exile in Norway. “If you saw him, you would feel the same. He is so serious.

From the list, Musa discovered that Tohti’s younger brother, Ablikim Tohti, had also been sentenced to seven years in prison for “gathering the public to disturb social order”. Tohti’s next door neighbour, a farmer called Nurmemet Dawut, was sentenced to 11 years on the same charges as well as “causing quarrels and causing trouble”.

Konasheher County is typical of rural southern Xinjiang and more than 267,000 people live there. Jail terms across the county ranged from two to 25 years, with an average of nine years, according to the list. While those on the list were mostly arrested in 2017, according to exiled Uyghurs, their sentences are so long that the vast majority are believed to still be in jail.

The swept away people came from all walks of life and included men, women, young people and old people. They had one thing in common: they were all Uyghurs.

Experts say this clearly shows that people were targeted simply because they were Uyghur – a conclusion vehemently denied by Chinese authorities. Xinjiang spokesman Elijan Anayat said the sentences were carried out according to law.

“We will never specifically target specific regions, ethnic groups, religions, let alone Uyghurs,” Anayat said. “We will never harm the good, nor set the bad free.”

The list was obtained by Xinjiang scholar Gene Bunin from an anonymous source who described himself as a member of China’s Han Chinese majority “opposed to Chinese government policy in Xinjiang”. It was passed to the AP by Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur linguist exiled in Norway. The AP authenticated it through interviews with eight Uyghurs who recognized 194 people on the list, as well as legal notices, recordings of phone calls with Chinese officials, and verification of addresses, birthdays and identity numbers.

The list does not include people with typical criminal charges such as homicide or theft. Instead, it focuses on offenses related to terrorism, religious extremism or the vague charges traditionally used against political dissidents, such as “stirring up quarrels and causing trouble”. This means that the actual number of people imprisoned is almost certainly higher.

But even by a conservative estimate, Konasheher County’s jail rate is more than 10 times that of the United States, one of the world’s top jailers, according to Justice Department 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.

Darren Byler, an expert on Xinjiang’s mass incarceration system, said most of the arrests were arbitrary and outlawed, with people detained for having relatives overseas or for downloading certain cellphone apps. .

“It’s really remarkable,” Byler said. “In no other place have we seen entire populations described as terrorists or considered terrorists.”

The crackdown kicked into high gear in 2017, after a series of stabbings and bombings by a small handful of Uyghur militants. The Chinese government has defended mass detentions as both legal and necessary to fight terrorism.

In 2019, Xinjiang officials declared short-term detention camps closed and said all those they described as “trainees” had “graduated”. Visits by Associated Press journalists to four former campsites confirm that they have been closed or converted to other facilities.

But the prisons remain. Xinjiang has embarked on a prison-building spree alongside the crackdown, and even as camps closed, prisons grew. At least a few campsites have been converted into detention centres.

China is using the law “like a fig leaf of legality” in part to try to deflect international criticism of Uyghur detention, said Jeremy Daum, a criminal law expert at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center. .

The secret nature of the charges against those jailed is a red flag, experts say. Although China makes criminal records easily accessible otherwise, nearly 90% of Xinjiang’s criminal records are not public. The few leaks show people being charged with “terrorism” for acts such as warning colleagues against watching pornography and swearing, or praying in prison.

Abduweli Ayup, the Uyghur exile who passed the list to the AP, has closely documented the ongoing crackdown on his community. But this list in particular floored him: there were neighbors, a cousin, a high school teacher.

“I had collapsed,” Ayup said. “I had told other people’s stories…. and now I am telling my own story of my childhood.

The much-admired teacher, Adil Tursun, was the only one in Toquzaq High School who could teach Chinese to Uyghur students. He was a member of the Communist Party, and every year his students had the highest chemistry test scores in the city.

The names of Tursun and others on the list made no sense to Ayup as they were seen as model Uyghurs.

“The names of the crimes, spreading extremist thoughts, separatism… these accusations are absurd,” he said.

Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan.