Uyghurs in China: The Most Heavily Jailed Group in the World

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June 28, 2024 | Bitter Winter | By Ruth Ingram

According to the Washington DC-based advocacy group, Uyghur Human Rights Project, (UHRP) 3,814 Turkic people per 100,000 were jailed in Xinjiang between 2017–2022 compared with the figure for China of 80 Han Chinese per 100,000. This dwarfs El Salvador’s hitherto notorious record of imprisoning 1,086 per 100,000 of its citizens.

The UHRP probe into prison numbers in China has shown that despite Uyghurs being only one percent of the total population of the superpower, one third of its total prison population is made up of Turkic peoples scattered throughout the province on its far northwestern flank, roughly four times the size of France.

Ben Carrdus, senior researcher at the UHRP and co-author of the report with Peter Irwin, UHRP Associate Director for Research & Advocacy, told “Bitter Winter” they were “stunned” by the statistics. Sifting through the data “over and over again,” he said they were “almost in disbelief.” The figures add weight to “an ongoing human rights crisis in the Uyghur Region,” he said.

“Even if our estimates are wildly over-stated; even three times the true imprisonment figures, they would still show that the Uyghur Region has the world’s highest rate of imprisonment,” he said.

High though the figures are, Chinese state-published data could just be the tip of the iceberg claims Carrdus. The true numbers could be much higher.

“We need to stress that these figures are for formal imprisonment only. They don’t include people who may still be effectively imprisoned in the camps or held indefinitely in pre-trial detention.” “And they don’t include people sentenced to prison by the Bingtuan’s courts (the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, originally set up seventy years ago to guard the Western frontiers, which has since mutated over time to create an “environment of extraordinary terror and oppression”). The true numbers are therefore likely to be astronomical,” he said.

Carrdus’ report notes that the dramatic number and length of prison sentences in the Uyghur region “should not be interpreted as a reflection of increased criminality among Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.” Citing a recent UHRP report on female religious figures in East Turkestan (the preferred term for Xinjiang used by exiled Uyghurs), it stresses a “remarkable, indeed shocking, lack of proportionality between crime and sentence,” when Uyghur cases go through the Chinese courts.

Specific case studies from the UHRP report included that of Ezizgul Memet who studied the Quran with her mother for three days in 1976 when she was five or six years old, for which she was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017.

Carrdus criticized the Communist Party’s “absurdly upbeat propaganda about the overall status and welfare of Uyghurs and other Turkic people in the region.”

“You can’t claim Uyghurs are the ‘happiest Muslims in the world’ when your own stats reveal that Uyghurs are the most-imprisoned people in the world.”

Beijing typically brushes aside any concerns and defends its actions by claiming China is a country ruled by law, said Carrdus. “But the law in China is only what the Party wants it to be and being ‘the law’ doesn’t mean there’s justice. These sentences, these imprisonment statistics, they’re the Party’s choice and the Party’s will, and they are yet more evidence of the ongoing human rights crisis in the Uyghur Region.”

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