Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Crimes of Extremism, Part II: Harsh Sentences, Low Transparency in Xinjiang

A Chinese propaganda poster denouncing extremism. In 2018, the poster went viral after a social media user noticed that one of the poster’s images condemning Islamic facial hair featured actor Keanu Reeves, who does not identify as Muslim. Image credit: Reddit via Taiwan News 

Read Part I here.

Although ethnic minorities make up the majority of the extremism cases, there is a dearth of publicly available information about them, particularly those of the Islamic faith. Court judgments and judicial decisions like this in Xinjiang are deemed to be highly sensitive; they were almost never posted online even before the purge on China Judgements Online started in June 2021. Overseas news media sources have reported on a few cases, but it is impossible to grasp the whole picture due to the tight control on information flows in the region. In most cases, media reports did not explicitly state which specific extremism crimes were invoked.   

Radio Free Asia (RFA) is among the overseas news media groups which have occasionally covered extremism cases over the years. In September 2017, a Uyghur woman named Horigul Nasir was reportedly sentenced to 10 years in prison in Kashgar, presumably for extremism because she allegedly told one of her friends that not wearing a headscarf is sinful. The allegation, however, has been disputed by her brother, who claimed that his sister does not even wear a headscarf or pray five times a day.  

In another case also reported by RFA, a Uyghur businessman named Ekber Imin is serving a 25-year prison sentence for an unspecified extremism crime alongside two of his brothers. They were reportedly convicted for having foreign contacts and spreading extremism by incorporating ethnic and religious elements in the buildings they developed.  

In March 2022, RFA reported that Abdureshid Obul died in 2020 while serving his eight-year prison sentence for an extremism crime. The Uyghur farmer was reportedly jailed for having a fourth child and relocating his pregnant wife to avoid a forced abortion. Ethnic minority families living in rural areas are limited to two children. Authorities considered Abdureshid’s violation of the family planning policy to be an act of extremism.  

(Top) Horigul Nasir’s identification card. (Bottom) A photo of Ekber Imin’s passport page. Image credits: RFA listeners via RFA 

The harsh punishments given to the aforementioned Uyghurs are by no means isolated incidents. Dui Hua’s research into Chinese government sources found evidence of Muslim minorities receiving excessive punishment for committing extremism crimes in Xinjiang. For instance, Dui Hua discovered a case in which a Uyghur prisoner had his prison sentence extended by 15 years in July 2017 for violating Article 120(3). He was already serving his seven-year prison sentence for Article 300 “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” It is unclear which “cult organization” he had joined leading to his initial conviction. The court ordered him to serve a total prison sentence of 19 years and 8 months, which included the 56-month sentence for Article 300 he had yet to complete. After his prison sentence expires in 2036, he must still serve a supplemental deprivation of political rights sentence of five years. 

It would be a mistake to assume that only Uyghurs are singled out for excessive criminal punishment. An ethnic Dongxiang surnamed Chen received a 10-year prison sentence for Article 120(3) with a deprivation of political rights sentence of three years in Nilka County in July 2018. As with almost all other cases of a similar nature, there is no information about the acts that led to his harsh prison sentence. 

Two Rare Judgments 

Despite being unable to find an extremism judgment in Xinjiang, where the majority of extremism cases are tried and heavy sentences are meted out, Dui Hua found two rare judgments in other provinces. Dongxiang are among the Muslim communities who have faced restrictions in and outside of Xinjiang, but very little information is known about the crackdown on this ethnic group. The case of Ma Yinglong (马英龙) in Beijing indicates that besides growing beards, conducting regular prayer or unauthorized religious classes, or fasting for Ramadan, Islamic booksellers are another target of China’s crackdown on extremism. 

A picture of the opening ceremony of a Xinjiang re-education camp, posted online by the government in Korla, Xinjiang in June 2018. The partially obscured sign on the left reads “Transformation Through Education Center” (教育转化中心 jiàoyù zhuǎnhuà zhōngxīn). Image credit Korla government via SupChina 

Ma is a native from Xinjiang’s Yining County. He was convicted of Article 120(3) and sentenced to 13 months in prison by Beijing’s Haidian District People’s Court in September 2017. The crime stemmed from him running an Islamic bookstore which sold books about Islam and related topics. Additionally, he administered his website, which offered a number of Islamic religious items including Malaysian-made hijabs and other clothing, Islamic arts and crafts, and halal food items, according to reporting from unofficial news media sources. 

The court judgment focused on one title he sold: Milestones: Ma'alim Fi'l Tariq. This book was written by Egyptian Islamic author Sayyid Qutb, who calls for the re-creation of the Muslim world on strictly Quranic grounds to counter western influence. Qutb is seen by some observers as one of the formative, leading theorists of violent jihad. Unbeknownst to Ma, the Chinese version of this book had been classified in China as an illegal publication about terrorism and extremism. Ma stated in his defense that he had not read the book; he only procured a total of six copies of Milestones at the request of his customers. The court rejected Ma’s defense because “he should have known about the extremely harmful nature of the book” considering he had many years of experience selling Islamic books. 

In another case, Dui Hua found that Uyghur businessman Erkin Balat was sentenced to 22 months in prison for Article 120(6) in Shandong. Erkin moved to Qufu from Xinjiang to start his jade business in 2007. In early 2017, he was found in possession of 50 Uyghur-language books, one Uyghur-Arabic dictionary and one Arabic-language Quran, which became evidence of him possessing articles to promote extremism. Some of the Uyghur titles touched on topics such as the history of Islam. Other evidence included two Japanese sabres and one Arabian scimitar he displayed in one of his shops. Erkin completed his prison sentence on March 8, 2021. 

Same Acts, Different Outcomes

In Part I, Dui Hua discussed how Han come into conflict with the law for extremism, including by possessing or circulating videos with scenes of violence in connection to the “East Turkestan Independence Movement,” ISIS, or the Taliban. Chinese law criminalizes such behavior regardless of ethnicity, but in practice there is a clear ethnic bias in sentencing. The same acts committed by Uyghurs or other Muslim minority groups are more likely to result in harsher criminal punishments. Precedents indicated that the same audio-visual evidence is almost certainly construed by prosecutors and judges to contain messages about “jihad” and “hijrat” (i.e. migration to another place for the sake of Allah) where the defendants practice Islam. In such cases, other crimes such as splittism, inciting splittism, and/or organizing or participating in a terrorist organization are often tacked on to the allegations of extremism.  

Screenshot from a 2019 CGTN program titled Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang. Image credit: CGTN 

While Muslims in Western countries have been given prison sentences for viewing, disseminating, or producing films containing extremist material, these cases have typically been handled with greater transparency to hold law enforcements accountable for their decisions and ensure that their counterterrorism measures are non-arbitrary and impartial. In cases where this might not be possible, such as the CIA’s use of black sites to interrogate suspected terrorist actors or other “enemy combatants,” civil society organizations and independent journalism efforts can provide a degree of scrutiny.  

By contrast, cases in China are selectively transparent at best, as in many publicized cases of Han. The vast majority of ethnic minority cases remain shrouded in secrecy. Limited available evidence on Uyghurs and other ethnic groups suggests that the acts are more diverse, but they all resolve around the expression of Islam. Muslims are also much more likely to receive disproportionately severe sentences for the same crimes than the Han counterparts. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Crimes of Extremism, Part I: Observations on Use and Sentencing

Screenshot from a 2019 CGTN program titled Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang. Image credit: CGTN 

Extremism, officially defined in Chinese law as the “ideological basis of terrorism”, or more broadly, “inciting hatred, discrimination or agitating violence through distorting religious doctrines or other means, has long been integral to China’s security policy against the “three evil forces” (i.e terrorism, splittism, and religious extremism). However, it was not a precisely defined legal term until the following provisions were added in 2015 under Article 120 of the Criminal Law, “organizing, leading, and actively participating in a terrorist organization:” 

  • Article 120(3): Promoting terrorism, or extremism or instigating terrorist activities;  
  • Article 120(4): Using extremism to undermine implementation of the law; 
  • Article 120(5): Coercing other people into wearing costumes or symbols to promote terrorism or extremism;
  • Article 120(6): Illegally possessing articles to promote terrorism or extremism

Reporting by overseas news media sources suggests that the four new crimes are most typically invoked against Uyghurs. The crimes have been criticized by United Nations’ special rapporteurs and working groups for being overly vague with no basis in binding international legal standards. Human rights groups have also said that many of the extremism arrests are made without evidentiary basis and authorities frequently fail to respect the due process rights of detainees.  

This is the first installment in a two-part series which discusses Dui Hua’s observations on extremism, with a focus on Article 120(3) and (6). Part I discusses the extent of the crimes’ application and sentencing trends, drawing on the 2016 statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court. Individuals charged with and convicted of extremism crimes are not exclusively members of ethnic minority groups, despite their accounting for most of the cases. Extremism cases are selectively published in Chinese government sources. Those involving Han are notably well documented, and only rarely do they receive lengthy prison sentences. Part II focuses on cases involving Muslim minorities. Hefty punishments appear commonplace in Xinjiang, but information on prisoners pre- and post-sentencing is extremely limited.  

Court Statistics One Year After Expansion

According to the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, China tried 1,403 extremism cases involving 2,463 defendants in 2016. Of them, 2,031, or 82 percent, were ethnic minorities. Additionally, 85 percent of the defendants were farmers. As Xinjiang has been cast as a key battlefield in the fight against extremism, it would be natural to assume that the charges are predominantly leveled against Muslim minorities.  

Table 1. Court statistics on extremism crimes for 2016

Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016

Two-thirds of the defendants violated Article 120(3) “promoting terrorism, or extremism or instigating terrorist activities.” Slightly over one quarter were tried for Article 120(6) “illegally possessing articles to promote terrorism or extremism.” About five percent, or 124 people, were tried for Article 120(4) “using extremism to undermine implantation of the law.” Only 18 people were tried in 17 cases of Article 120(5) “coercing other people into wearing costumes or symbols to promote terrorism or extremism” in 2016. 

Of the four extremism crimes, Article 120(3) is most likely to result in lengthy prison sentences. Among the 1,669 people who received criminal punishment for this crime, 1,109, or 66 percent, received prison sentences of five years or more. By contrast, a much bigger portion of people who are tried for Article 120 (4), (5) and (6) received prison sentences below five years. The use of non-custodial punishment in all extremism cases was rare. Only 70 people convicted of the four extremism crimes were given suspended sentences or control (guanzhi). 

Members of China’s largest ethnic group, Han, are not immune to the crackdown on extremism. The court statistics indicated that 422, or 17 percent, of the 2,463 people tried for the new extremism crimes in 2016 were Han. Of them, 198 were tried for Article 120(3) “promoting terrorism, or extremism or instigating terrorist activities,” 172 for Article 120(6) “illegally possessing articles to promote terrorism or extremism,” 59 for Article 120(4) “using extremism to undermine implantation of the law,” and two for Article 120(5) “coercing other people into wearing costumes or symbols to promote terrorism or extremism.” 

Han Cases

Han extremism cases are easily searchable in Chinese government and media sources. Their cases rarely result in lengthy prison sentences. Dui Hua found 18 cases tried in Beijing which invoked Article 120(3) or (6) from 2017-2021. There were 19 defendants, of whom 11 were Han, one ethnic Manchu, and one Dongxiang. Ethnicity is not always specified in the judgments. None of the Han defendants in Beijing received prison sentences of more than one year, and the lengthiest sentence of two years was given to a duo whose ethnicity is not specified. 

The circumstances of the publicly disclosed extremism cases in other Han-majority provinces are almost identical: they are accused of disseminating violent and terrorist videos they downloaded from overseas websites with the use of a VPN. The videos, typically filmed in the Middle East, contain scenes of violence with prisoners of war beheaded or executed, footage of Islamic State or sometimes Taliban attacks, training, and fighting. The defendants unwittingly commit Article 120(3) when they share the videos with their friends, post them on social media, or put them in cloud storage.  

A screenshot of a 2015 tweet from Mashable on Chinese-language ISIS propaganda. Image credit: Mashable Twitter account 

Most Han defendants are not religious, and they are depicted to have been driven by curiosity to download or share the violent videos. In some cases, they are convicted for simply poking fun at terrorist organizations or figures. In December 2019, news media sources reported that a man surnamed Zhang was sentenced to nine months in prison in Beijing for Article 120(3) for sending out a six-word joke in Chinese which can be translated as “follow me and believe in Islam, join the ISIS” to a WeChat group with over 300 people. He also used a photo of Bin Laden as his profile portrait. 

A portion of Han defendants were convicted of Article 120(6) “illegally possessing articles to promote terrorism or extremism” for keeping violent footage on their personal electronic or mobile devices, despite them not having shared anything with other people. None of the Han defendants convicted of this crime in Beijing received prison sentences exceeding one year.  

Targeting Han Dissidents

While most Han defendants in extremism cases are portrayed as thrill seekers who inadvertently violate the law, precedents also show that extremism easily becomes a catch-all offense to be used in politically motivated prosecutions targeting political and religious dissenters. In such cases, prison sentences can be excessive. For instance, Huang Yunmin (黄云敏) is serving his 10-year prison sentence for Article 120(6), one of the longest prison sentences given to a Han dissenter for an extremism crime. Huang was initially detained for provoking ethnic hatred in March 2017 for accompanying farmers and ex-soldiers to Beijing to petition during the “Two Sessions.” Additionally, prosecutors accused Huang of downloading a large number of anti-China footage from overseas websites and audiovisual materials related to the July 5 Urumqi riots. Huang is scheduled for release in 2027. 

(Clockwise top left) Journalist Zhang Baocheng; Huang Yunmin, known for helping petitioners; Zhao Waikei, Xuncheng Reformed Church leader. Image credits: Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch via RFA; Asia News; WeChat via ChinaAid 

Han who express sympathy with the Uyghur cause are at heightened risk of imprisonment for extremism crimes. Zhang Baocheng (张宝成) is serving his 42-month prison sentence in Beijing for Article 120(3) and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" until November 27, 2022. The extremism charge, which afforded him a prison sentence of eight months, stemmed from one video clip he circulated about “East Turkestan.” In November 2021, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Zhang’s detention since 2019 was “arbitrary” and called on China to “release Mr. Zhang immediately,” noting that the prosecution’s main evidence against him related not to violence but to his tweets criticizing the re-education camps in Xinjiang holding Uyghurs. The Working Group’s ruling was made public by one of the plaintiffs on April 25, 2022. 

In a separate case, Hu Xincheng (胡新城) was arrested for Article 120(3) in Taiyuan, Shanxi, in January 2022 because of his journalistic work. Hu became a thorn in the side of local governments after he published hundreds of articles and reports about corruption. Additionally, Hu reportedly gave advice to petitioners on how to find redress for grievances within the petitioning system. 

Extremism is also used to target Christians unwilling to join the state sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Church. In July 2020, police in Taiyuan arrested Zhao Weikai (赵维凯) for Article 120(6). Zhao, a leader of the Xuncheng Reformed Church, repeatedly faces harassment by the authorities because of his insistence on educating his three children at home instead of sending them to a state school to receive atheist education. Zhao was formally arrested in the same month, being accused of possessing extremism materials. 

Part II will be published next week. Subscribe to Dui Hua publications here