Uyghurs in Xinjiang are being given long prison sentences. Their families say they have done nothing wrong

Throughout the next 4 years, Taher was locked up in Xinjiang detention centers on 3 different celebrations for months at a time, Mezensof informed CNN from her house in Melbourne, where the couple had actually intended to cohabit.

Then in April this year, she got a telephone call to state her spouse had actually been pursued separatism and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

“How could they be that cruel, like how can they be that heartless? My husband didn’t do anything. And he’s already been through so much in the last four years,” she stated.

Rights groups and United Nations professionals have actually implicated the Chinese federal government of apprehending more than one million Uyghurs and Muslim minorities in extra-legal detention camps, which Beijing claims are “vocational training centers” developed to avoid separatism and spiritual extremism.

Together with that system of detention, professionals state there is a different program that includes the prolonged jail time of Uyghurs, like Taher, for declared criminal activities consisting of terrorism, separatism and prompting ethnic hatred.

Chinese federal government figures reveal a high increase in the variety of individuals offered prolonged jail sentences in Xinjiang from 2014, when Beijing’s crackdown on the area’s Muslim-majority Uyghurs increase.

The records do not expose the criminal activities devoted, or profile the religious beliefs or ethnic culture of those founded guilty. CNN cannot validate whether the policy is still in location as public information for jail times hasn’t been launched beyond 2018.

Nathan Ruser, a scientist at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and author of a report into Xinjiang satellite images, stated proof of increased jail facilities and Uyghur statement from the area suggested that systemic persecution through the courts was most likely still common.

Proof of broadening jail system

In 2014, about 21,000 individuals were sentenced to prison terms in Xinjiang.

4 years later on, that number had actually risen to almost 133,200. In overall, more than a quarter of a million individuals were imprisoned in between 2016 and 2018 alone, in an area with a population of about 25 million.

As more individuals went to prison, their sentences got longer.

According to Xinjiang’s analytical yearbooks, 87% of all sentences in 2017 were for more than 5 years, up from 27% in 2016. Rights groups state that sharp increase in the length of jail terms recommends the Chinese federal government’s crackdown in the area is ending up being more severe.

Xinjiang authorities stopped launching jail information in 2018, masking more current numbers in secrecy, stated Person Rights Watch China scientist Maya Wang. “I think there has been a practice of (Chinese government officials) hiding and manipulating figures, especially in more politicized environments,” Wang stated. “It’s kind of clear what’s going on.”

UK lawmakers declare China's treatment of Uyghurs is genocide
In a February report, Person Rights Watch stated it evaluated practically 60 official prosecutions in between 2016 and 2018 and discovered that numerous detainees had actually been founded guilty “without committing a genuine offense.” The Majority Of the Uyghur and Kazakh cases included “vague” offenses consisting of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” the report stated.

Details from the Xinjiang Victims Database, a nongovernmental company that has actually recorded more than 8,000 Uyghur cases, recommends the pattern of high sentencing rates continued till a minimum of 2020, HRW stated.

CNN connected to the Chinese federal government on accusations of a rise of Uyghur jail times in Xinjiang however has actually not gotten an action.

The Chinese federal government has actually specified there is no persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, calling accusations of extensive human rights abuses the “biggest lie of the century.”
In July 2019, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Area Chairman Shohrat Zakir stated most of individuals had actually been launched from the area’s re-education camps.
However satellite images released in a September report by the ASPI, a think tank lack Canberra, reveals a quick growth of jail centers in the area. Scientists at ASPI claim there is proof that some detainees who were launched from the Xinjiang camp system are being moved into a growing complex of high-security jails.

Ruser, an author of the ASPI report, stated satellite images appeared to reveal that lower security centers were being decommissioned while high-security jails were broadening. According to ASPI, higher-security centers are typically determined by high border walls, guard towers and a limited variety of entryways to the complex.

Out of 61 detention websites, which were broadened or updated in between July 2019 and July 2020, ASPI scientists stated about 50% were high-security areas. Ruser stated it was not constantly possible to inform if a high-security center was a jail or a re-education center.

“There’s no sign they’re currently looking to loosen up their crackdown, at least in the sense of physical detention,” Ruser stated.

‘It’s a fabrication’

The Chinese government denied the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, until around mid-2018 when Beijing stated the camps were part of an anti-terrorism and poverty alleviation campaign.

With international opposition growing to its Xinjiang policies, the Chinese federal government has since tried to amplify its message through officials, diplomats and state-run media.

In one glossy documentary, which aired in April on state broadcaster CGTN, Uyghur prisoners were accused of plotting to create an independent state for their people in Xinjiang.

Dilsar Ablimit, 21, saw the documentary from her home in Turkey and burst into tears — two of the people interviewed were her father and uncle. Ablimit hadn’t seen her father since February 2017 when she left Urumqi to study in Turkey age 17.

Dilsar Ablimit, 21, at her home in Turkey in June, with a photo of her father and uncle before they were detained.

Two months after she flew out of Xinjiang, she found out her father’s three brothers had been detained — then in September 2017, she learned her father had been taken, too. At the time, her mother told Ablimit and her siblings their father was on a business trip, but Ablimit suspected otherwise.

For four years, Ablimit’s mother refused to answer questions about their father, maintaining he would return soon. But when Ablimit saw him on CGTN, she realized he may never come home.

Through tears, she stated she barely recognized him. “(My father) changed a lot … He lost a lot of weight,” she said.

In photos taken before he disappeared into internment camps, her father had a full head of hair and a mustache. In the documentary, his head and mustache were shaved, and he looked thinner.

A still image of Ablimit's father and uncle from the CGTN documentary War in the Shadows which was broadcast in April.

There was also one key detail that stood out: Ablimit’s father was accused in the documentary of participating in a terrorist conspiracy, which in the past has carried heavy sentences. She is now worried he is in jail, rather than a detention center.

Ablimit said her relatives are not guilty.

“It’s a fabrication … my father and my uncle are never political or (religious). My father and uncle are neither a terrorist or a separatist,” she said.

CNN has contacted the Chinese government to clarify her relatives’ situation, but received no reply.

‘They’re dead inside’

Some Uyghurs said their relatives or friends serving lengthy prison sentences in Xinjiang were rushed through a quick trial, without access to an independent lawyer. In many cases, evidence for the convictions was not shared or explained.

Human rights activists have long questioned the legal system in China, where the conviction rate regularly exceeds 99%. Only 656 people were found not guilty in Chinese courts in 2020, out of 1.5 million cases.

Nyrola Elima, a Uyghur exile now living in Sweden, said the evidence that sent her cousin to jail was entirely fabricated.

Elima said her cousin Mayila Yakufu was sentenced to six-and-a-half years jail in February after being accused of financing terrorism. Elima said Yakufu’s only crime was transferring money to Australia to help her parents buy a house.

Mayila Yakufu with her aunt.

The imprisonment has left her family devastated, according to Elima. “I think they’re dead inside,” she said.

In a handwritten letter, which Elima said was penned by Yakufu in April, her cousin says she was forced to sign a false confession under threat of torture that was then used as evidence to convict her.

“They threatened me that if I did not admit guilt they would immediately take me to the National Security Forces and continuously interrogate me for a month, to see what else I will confess,” the letter allegedly from Yakufu said. CNN has seen and independently translated the letter.

Yakufu said she confessed not only to avoid torture but also to protect the rest of her family who still live in Xinjiang. “I don’t have the strength to resist such power … I really feel wronged and can’t get over it but I had no other option,” the letter said.

During major Chinese internal security crackdowns, such as the one implemented in Xinjiang, officials are often under pressure to convict large numbers of people to prove the effectiveness of the project, according to HRW.

“When it comes to people who are ethnic minorities, I think it is highly likely that many of the people there shouldn’t be imprisoned,” said Wang, the HRW China researcher. “If you look at the verdicts that are available it does show that … they are being punished for behavior that does not constitute crimes.”

‘I’ll never give up’

Families caught in the system endure lengthy waits for brief moments of contact with prisoners. Elima said recently her mother was able to chat with Yakufu over a short video call arranged by the local justice bureau.

“It only lasted two or three minutes. No more,” Elima said. “She just said, I’m fine, take care of yourself, take care of my kids.”

Yakufu was visibly distressed when she saw two of her children on the call, Elima said.

“She looked like there was no hope or light in her eyes,” Elima said. “Her voice was shaking, she tried really hard not to cry. She held herself from the tears to be strong for her mom and the kids. If she started crying, it would haunt my mom forever.”

In Melbourne, Mezensof believes her husband has been imprisoned in one of the newly expanded high-security prison facilities in a town called Hami, 600 kilometers (372 miles) from the regional capital Urumqi, where the couple used to live together.

She hasn’t been able to speak with him since he was sentenced.

Mezensof and her husband in November 2016 in Urumqi, five months before he was detained.

For years, Mezensof kept quiet about her husband’s predicament to avoid inflaming matters. After he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, she said she had nothing left to lose.

“They did the worst possible thing that they can do to my husband, and now it’s just like, there was no choice left,” she said.

Although worldwide pressure is growing for Beijing to reverse its policies in Xinjiang, there is little indication that her husband will be released any time quickly. Mezensof stated she won’t stop trying.

“No matter how hard it gets up I’m never gonna give up on him,” she stated. “I’ll never give up until he is free.”

CNN’s Gul Tuysuz, Angus Watson, Paul Devitt and Isaac Yee contributed to this article. Journalist Caroline Troedsson likewise contributed.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.