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.