Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Punishing Namāz Prayer in Prison, Part I: “Sabotaging Prison Supervision”

A clock hanging in a Turkish mosque showing Muslim prayer times. Image credit: LooiNL 

Muslims around the world are obliged to perform five daily prayers at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and night. The ritual, commonly known as salah, is often called namazi (CN: 乃玛孜) in China, a Persian transliteration of namāz. Within China’s carceral system, all forms of religious worship, including namāz, are forbidden. Prisoners who covertly perform namāz are at risk of receiving harsh punishment, with the most serious penalty being a sentence extension. 

This risk is well demonstrated in the case of Ismayil Sidiq. In May 2021, the BBC reported that the now-57-year-old Uyghur farmer was serving a 10-year prison sentence for “promoting extremism” in Kuitun Prison in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps when he had his sentence doubled after he “used a disguised and simplified method to perform namāz in the prison dormitory.” On May 29, 2018, the Kuitun Reclamation Area People’s Court convicted him of “sabotaging prison supervision” and “provoking ethnic hatred,” and handed down an additional prison term of 13 years. Ismayil has 16 more years to serve before completing his sentence on May 28, 2038. He will be 74 years old. 

The four-page judgment gave a detailed account of what happened in Kuitun Prison. First searchable on China Judgements Online, the judgment is among the tens of thousands of sensitive cases taken offline in mid-2021. The judgment has since been archived and translated into English by the Xinjiang Victims Database

A translation of the judgment against Ismayil. Image credit: Xinjiang Victims Database Twitter account 

According to the judgment, Ismayil performed namāz on three occasions in the prison dormitory in early 2018. The first two took place on January 25 and February 17 after he realized that the time displayed on the television was the time for his final daily namāz. On March 3, on the pretext of needing to urinate, he secretly performed wudu, the washing ritual that Muslims perform before praying. After being discovered and stopped by his Uyghur cellmates, he became outraged and shouted at them asking, “Are you Uyghurs? Do Uyghurs enjoy reporting other Uyghurs like this?” 

The court found clear and sufficient evidence of Ismayil sabotaging prison supervision because he “repeatedly engaged in covert religious activities in prison.” This crime alone afforded him a prison sentence of three years - the maximum penalty stipulated in Article 315 of the Criminal Law. Furthermore, he was found guilty of “provoking ethnic hatred” because the remarks he made to other Uyghur cellmates “sowed discord among the ethnic groups and created ethnic antagonism.” This crime also landed him the maximum prison sentence of 10 years as stipulated by Article 249. 

An excerpt taken from academic journal Crime and Corrections reveals that namāz is among the religious activities explicitly banned in prisons and re-education-through-labor facilities through Xinjiang. Image credit: Crime and Corrections, (2001) Issue 4 

While prisoners are allowed to retain their religious faith, prison authorities across China proscribe all forms of religious activities but allow prisoners to read religious books or silently chant scriptures. Article 2 of a provisional regulation issued by the Xinjiang Department of Justice explicitly prohibits all forms of religious activity such as participating in Ramadan, namāz, other forms of worship, or sermons in prisons and reeducation-through-labor facilities. However, many Muslim detainees and prisoners defied this prison rule and “shared a propensity to organize gangs when they perform namāz in groups,” according to an article published in Crime and Corrections in 2001. Congregational prayer, referred to as Salat al-Jama'ah, is highly valued among Muslims and is thought to be more spiritually enriching than solo prayer.  

In Xinjiang, namāz is a matter of concern for managing prisoners serving their sentences for endangering state security. A 2008 policy document examining the challenges faced by Xinjiang prison authorities states that these prisoners not only distort the history of Xinjiang, spread rumors, and incite ethnic hatred, but they also “use acts such as hunger strikes, suicide, namāz and feigned illness to disobey management and refuse reform.” 

Existing laws and regulations, however, have not clearly explained the criminal liabilities for performing namāz in prison. The crime of “sabotaging prison supervision,” defined in Article 315 of the Criminal Law, makes no mention of namāz or any other forms religious activity. It only stipulates that the following acts fall under the crime’s purview: (1) beating supervising personnel; (2) organizing other people under detention to sabotage supervision order; (3) assembling a crowd to make trouble, thereby disturbing normal supervision order; (4) beating, carrying out corporal punishment on or instigating other people to beat, carry out corporal punishment on other people under detention. 

It is not immediately clear whether performing namāz fulfills the criteria of stipulation 2 as stated above. Assuming it does, Ismayil’s case might suggest that the three instances of namāz he performed on January 25, February 17, and March 3 of 2018 were already sufficient to reach the threshold for the maximum prison sentence of three years.  

Read Part II.