Twenty years ago, when Ayshemhan Abdulla, sent her three teenage children to a local home-based religious school, little did she know that her action would later land her in prison for 21 years.
At the time, the Uyghur housewife, now 62, thought she was doing what was best for her two daughters and one son by ensuring they received Islamic religious instruction in keeping with their Muslim Uyghur identity in China’s far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
When Chinese authorities began the “strike hard” campaign in Xinjiang in 2014, they imposed severe penalties on Uyghurs, arrested them arbitrarily, and began a propaganda drive against the group’s ethnic customs and religious faith under the guise of promoting modernity.
As part of the campaign, authorities destroyed mosques, restricted religious practices, forbid Islamic garb and long beards for men, banned Islamic names for children, and prohibited fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
By 2017, the situation for the repressed minority group had grown worse. That year, authorities began forcing what would amount to roughly 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities into “re-education” camps. Chinese officials claimed the camps were vocational training centers meant to prevent terrorism and religious extremism.
Beyond the detentions, authorities subjected Uyghurs to intense surveillance, torture, forced labor, involuntary sterilizations and other severe human rights abuses.
Abdulla got caught up in Chinese authorities’ dragnet in Xinjiang, where more than 11 million Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uyghurs live.
They arrested Abdulla, a resident of Ghulja county, or Yining in Chinese, and sentenced her to 21 years in prison in 2017 for sending her children to a house religious school, said a security chief from her village in Qarayaghach township.
“She is serving her prison term in Baykol Women’s Prison in Ghulja city,” said the man who declined to be named out of concern for his safety. “For each child she sent, she received seven years in prison.”
Authorities also took Abdulla’s children to a camp and held them for more than a year, but later released them, the village security chief said.
Many Uyghurs over 60 were arrested and sentenced to harsh prison sentences for sending their children to religious schools though they had done so more than a decade ago, according to the Xinjiang Police Files, a cache of millions of confidential documents hacked from Xinjiang police computers and released in May 2022. Though Abdulla was not on the list, the files indicate that the arrests of innocent people were not legal.
‘Incompatible with relevant laws’
A Uyghur former police officer, who declined to give his name for fear of his safety, said Abdulla’s harsh sentence was likely not the decision of judicial authorities but made by the Chinese Communist Party’s political and legal committee.
The former policeman, who now lives in Sweden, said he believes Beijing authorities set their own arrest numbers and told local authorities who should receive harsh punishments.
“Sentencing someone to such a long prison term is incompatible with the relevant laws,” he told Radio Free Asia.
“Beijing’s central government might have given the local political and legal committee assignments to harshly punish Uyghurs in the concentration camps since the mass detention started in 2017,” he said. “There was an order and pressure from Beijing, and thus they arbitrarily detained and harshly sentenced innocent Uyghurs to meet Beijing’s quota.”
The Chinese apparatus at various levels completed their “assignments” by imposing a “seven-year prison sentence for each person who sent her kid to religious school.”
The former officer said misuse of legal power and abuse of the law were rife when he worked in the police force in Xinjiang in the early 2000s, though Chinese authorities tried to justify their policies.
Back then, no matter if legal authorities held open or secret trials, they always used to inform the convicts’ families about their sentencing and their right to oppose the court’s decision, he said.
“They attempted to go by some rules and legal procedures to deal with the arrested then,” the former policeman said. “It was impossible to imagine someone being sentenced to 21 years in prison for sending her children to a religious school when I worked 20 years ago.”
“Compared to then, the situation has worsened dramatically now,” he said. “At present, they have no shame at all in breaking their laws and openly abusing them.”
Other women in Qarayaghach met a similar fate.
Halide Qurban, a Uyghur from the same village as Abdulla, received 18 years in prison, 14 years for sending her two children to a religious school and four years for illegal praying activity, the village security official said.
“She was an illiterate woman and she died in prison because she had diabetes,” he said.