Authorities in Western China’s Xinjiang region are formally prosecuting ethnic Uyghurs at a higher rate than in previous years, and have increased the length of prison sentences for the Turkic minority group native to the Central Asian territory, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Wednesday.
Xinjiang courts sentenced over 99,000 people in the Uyghur-majority region in 2017 and over 133,000 in 2018, according to Chinese government statistics cited by HRW, a non-governmental organization (NGO). The Chinese government has yet to release Xinjiang’s 2019 or 2020 sentencing statistics.
Human Rights Watch said it analyzed “nearly 60 of these cases” and found many people appear to have been convicted and imprisoned by Chinese authorities without evidence they had committed a genuine criminal offense.
“These formal prosecutions are distinct from those arbitrarily detained in unlawful ‘political education’ facilities,” HRW noted, referring to Xinjiang’s state-run detention camps.
The Chinese government has allegedly detained an estimated 1 to 3 million Uyghurs in these concentration camps –which it refers to as vocational or “political education” centers – since it launched a crackdown on the Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim minority group in 2016 citing concerns about the spread of Islamic extremism and terrorism within the community. Xinjiang borders Central Asia and is referred to by Uyghurs as “East Turkestan.”
“Although the Chinese government’s use of ‘political education’ camps has led to international outrage, the detention and imprisonment of Xinjiang’s Muslims by the formal justice system has attracted far less attention,” HRW’s senior China researcher, Maya Wang, said in the report.
“Other available information concerning 51 cases, including the indictments, incarceration notices, leaked official documents, and official communications with families indicate most of the Uyghur and Kazakh individuals in these cases have been imprisoned for vague and overbroad offenses,” the authors of the HRW report added. The stated offenses include “inciting ethnic hatred”; “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”; and “watching or listening to extremist content.”
HRW also noted a “dramatic increase” in the number of people assigned lengthy prison sentences in Xinjiang in 2017.
“Prior to 2017, sentences of over five years in prison were about 10.8 percent of the total number of people sentenced. In 2017, they make up 87 percent of the sentences,” the NGO wrote.
The average prison sentence for Uyghurs between 2016 and 2018 was 12.5 years, according to the Xinjiang Victims Database. The NGO based the estimate on an analysis of 312 people in Xinjiang who were assigned prison sentences during the two-year period, excluding the six people assigned life prison sentences during that time.
During the February 16 CNN town hall, President Joe Biden justified the concentration camps saying, it is how dictator Xi Jinping keeps the country “unified.”