China: Official figures from Xinjiang reveal an increase in the number of prisoners


(New York) – The Chinese government used its justice system to convict and jail about half a million people during the brutal crackdown in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said today.

Although not all convicted prisoners have faced political charges, available figures indicate that the total number of people wrongfully imprisoned in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is much higher than what is generally reported based on previous official figures. These formal prosecutions, in which many people have been punished without being tried, are distinct from arbitrary detentions in extralegal “political education” establishments. Relevant countries should pressure the Chinese government to release all Uyghurs and other Turkish minorities wrongfully detained in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

“The Chinese government may have hoped that formally prosecuting people in Xinjiang would shun the spotlight on mass detentions in extralegal political education camps,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But many of these convictions only add to the crimes against humanity of unjust imprisonment against Uyghurs and other Turks”.

Authorities in Xinjiang launched a Strike Hard campaign against violent terrorism in 2014, but dramatically escalated it in 2017. Previously, statistics from the Xinjiang High People’s Court put the total number of people convicted between 2017 and 2018 at 232. 524, a figure widely reported in 2019. Since then, the Xinjiang High People’s Court has not released new official sentencing figures.

The Xinjiang People’s Procuratorate, which has continued to release statistics, reported in February 2022 that a total of 540,826 people have been prosecuted in the region since 2017. Given that China’s conviction rate is over 99 9%, almost all of these 540,826 people would have been sentenced.

Number of prosecutions in Xinjiang per year
(Source: Xinjiang People’s Procuratorate)

Annual arrest and prosecution figures, released by the Xinjiang People’s Procuratorate, follow the Strike Hard campaign closely. When the crackdown began in 2014, annual arrest and prosecution figures in Xinjiang jumped 96 percent and 59 percent, respectively. Those numbers then skyrocketed in 2017, the year Xinjiang authorities stepped up the crackdown.

Although the numbers for 2020 and 2021 have since dropped, they remain high and are comparable to those at the start of the Strike Hard campaign, suggesting that it is continuing.

The available evidence also suggests that the vast majority of the 540,826 people charged most likely remain in jail. Official statistics from the Xinjiang High People’s Court at the start of the government’s Strike Hard campaign in Xinjiang showed a dramatic increase in the number of people sentenced to long terms. Prior to 2017, approximately 10.8% of those convicted had been sentenced to prison terms of more than five years. In 2017, they accounted for 87% of sentences. The Xinjiang Higher People’s Court also did not release new sentencing breakdowns.

The Xinjiang Victims Database, a non-governmental organization, has extensively documented the cases of more than 8,000 detainees based on family accounts and official documents. The group found that, based on a leaked list of prisoners from Konasheher (Shufu) County in Kashgar Prefecture, southern Xinjiang, 99% of inmates were sentenced to terms of 5 years or more. in 2017, with an average of 9.24 years.

Based on this information, it is estimated that half a million people in Xinjiang remain incarcerated in prisons across the region since the escalation of the Strike Hard campaign in 2017.

Very few court verdicts related to the Strike Hard campaign are publicly available. The Xinjiang Victims Database has documented that the Chinese government conceals these verdicts from relatives and lawyers of the victims – in rare cases where they had legal access – and from the public, despite an official commitment to deliver most verdicts. courts accessible to the public.

An earlier analysis by Human Rights Watch of 58 such verdicts that were available suggests that many convicted in the Strike Hard campaign had been imprisoned without committing a legally recognizable offense. Research of the Xinjiang Victims Database also shows that in some cases the defendants were not in court when they were sentenced, but in extralegal political education camps or remand centers, without having suffered the slightest semblance of a criminal trial.

Xinjiang’s Strike Hard campaign has targeted what the Chinese government calls the “ideological virus” of Turkish Muslims. These ideas include what authorities describe as extreme religious dogma, any sense of non-Han Chinese identity, and relationships with people abroad.

Ostensibly to maintain stability and fight terrorism in Xinjiang, the Strike Hard campaign uses mass surveillance and political indoctrination of the entire population. Authorities assess people’s thoughts, behavior and relationships based on spurious and broad criteria – such as whether they use WhatsApp or a virtual private network (VPN) – to determine how their conduct should be “corrected”.

As many as a million people were wrongfully detained in political education camps, remand centers and prisons at the height of the crackdown. Those whose transgressions are considered mild by authorities are held in extralegal political education camps or subjected to other forms of movement restrictions, including house arrest. Some detainees in the camps have been released following international pressure, although they continue to be subject to continuous surveillance, movement controls and, in some cases, forced labour. Others remain forcibly disappeared. Past government practice suggests that more “serious” cases are eventually handled through the formal criminal justice system.

The Chinese Communist Party controls all three branches of the criminal justice system, resulting in widespread denial of the right to a fair trial. Although basic procedural protections exist, authorities can easily circumvent them. The government routinely strips suspects in political cases of any protection. This is especially true in the top-down Strike Hard campaign, in which the Party directs the police, prosecution, and judiciary to work together to achieve political goals.

In April 2021, Human Rights Watch concluded that Strike Hard campaign abuses in Xinjiang constituted crimes against humanity – serious crimes committed as part of widespread or systematic attacks on the population. They included mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, family separation, forced returns to China, forced labor, sexual violence, and violations of reproductive rights.

Recent official speeches and government reports stress that “counterterrorism and maintaining stability” in Xinjiang must be “legalized and normalized” (反恐维稳法治化常态化), a term that appears to be an interpretation of the president’s speech. Xi Jinping in Third Xinjiang. Central Working Forum in September 2020. Relying on the formal criminal justice system could be part of authorities’ efforts to “legalize and normalize” repression in Xinjiang.

It’s unclear whether government efforts to portray the campaign as “legalized and normalized” were planned, or a response to the unprecedented international attention since late 2018 on the political education camps, or a mixture of the two. Policy documents since the start of 2018 have espoused the vision that the escalation phase of the campaign would last five years from 2017, and that it would “achieve stability within a year, consolidate [such a state] the second year, normality in the third year, and overall stability in five years” (一年稳住、两年巩固、三年常态、五年全面稳定).

In December 2021, Ma Xingrui, a Chinese aerospace industry technocrat experienced in governing the wealthier coastal regions of Shenzhen and Guangdong, replaced Chen Quanguo, one of the top officials most responsible for abuses in the region. , as Party Secretary. In July 2022, President Xi visited the region for the first time since 2014, when he may have paved the way for the crackdown. During the July visit, Xi said that while the region should “maintain a firm grip on stability”, it should also “move towards prosperity”.

On August 31, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report confirming mass arbitrary detention, torture, cultural persecution, forced labor and other serious human rights violations documented by human rights groups in Xinjiang. The high commissioner’s report says the Chinese government’s conduct in the region could constitute international crimes, “in particular crimes against humanity.”

“The Chinese government’s brilliant narrative on Xinjiang tries to turn fiction into reality, saying that everything went according to plan and the Communist Party suppressed all unrest and now offers economic opportunities,” Wang said. “Governments should reject this fairy tale, seize the momentum of the UN report, and step up their efforts to investigate and hold Chinese officials accountable for crimes against humanity.”


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