'Illegal Superstition': China Jails Muslims For Practicing Islam, Relatives Say Muslim minorities in the northwestern region are targets of a sweeping security operation. Officials say most residents have been returned to society, but relatives say many are sentenced to prison.
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'Illegal Superstition': China Jails Muslims For Practicing Islam, Relatives Say

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'Illegal Superstition': China Jails Muslims For Practicing Islam, Relatives Say

'Illegal Superstition': China Jails Muslims For Practicing Islam, Relatives Say

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. has added 28 Chinese organizations to a trade blacklist - this over China's alleged abuse against ethnic Uighurs in China's western region of Xinjiang. Since 2016, China has detained up to a million and a half Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. Beijing says the detentions are a counterterrorism measure. The Chinese government also claims its detention centers in Xinjiang are actually vocational training centers and that most of the people held there have been released. A lot of these detainees have families living in neighboring Kazakhstan. And NPR's Emily Feng traveled there recently. She found a very different story than the one the Chinese government is telling.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: I'm struggling to get up this Soviet-era walk-up to meet Aibota Zhanibek. Born in Xinjiang, she's now a Kazakh citizen and a full-time homemaker caring for her four children.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

FENG: Is it her sister?

Underneath her domestic tranquility, Zhanibek is hiding a story of pain. Her immediate family still lives in Xinjiang. Her mother and sister were detained last year because they're ethnically Kazakh and practicing Muslims.

AIBOTA ZHANIBEK: (Through interpreter) My mother was just sentenced to 20 years for being religious. She is being held in Urumqi Women's Prison No. 2.

FENG: Zhanibek's mother, Nurzhada Zhumakhan, can briefly video call her husband from prison twice a month.

ZHANIBEK: (Through interpreter) My mom looked so thin, according to my dad. She was nearly blind, and she was completely shaved.

FENG: Her sister, Kunekai Zhanibek, fared better. She spent seven months in a detention camp making towels and carpets for no pay until this summer. She was released and is now in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital. She has a state-assigned job but can't leave Urumqi without permission. Every aspect of her life is still controlled, even the most personal of decisions.

ZHANIBEK: (Through interpreter) She got married recently but had to ask for permission to marry. Can you imagine having to ask for something like that?

FENG: What Zhanibek's mother's imprisonment and her sister's release encapsulate is a significant shift currently underway in Xinjiang. In July, Xinijang authorities said most detainees had been released. Here's Alken Tuniaz, Xinjiang government's vice chairman, using a euphemism for the detention camps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALKEN TUNIAZ: (Through interpreter) Most people who received educational training have returned to society and returned home.

FENG: This September, NPR interviewed 26 relatives of ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs currently detained or imprisoned in Xinjiang and five former detainees. They described how they themselves or loved ones had been sentenced to prison. These sentences have allowed Xinjiang officials to claim the population at the so-called vocational training centers has gone down. But not because everyone is being released - it's because many of them have been sent to more formal prisons in Xinjiang.

SHAKHIDYAM MEMANOVA: (Through interpreter) It was a closed court trial. They just read the verdict to him, according to his parents.

FENG: Shakhidyam Memanova is Uighur. Her husband, Nuermaimaiti Maimaitiyiming, was sentenced to 17 years in prison in May. She suspects it was because he took Islamic doctrine classes when he was 14. But neither she nor her in-laws can be sure.

MEMANOVA: (Through interpreter) No one ever explained to us why he was even detained.

FENG: The prison sentences seemed to target Muslims who exhibit religious behavior. Twenty-three of the 32 people NPR learned have been sentenced to prison in Xinjiang recently were religious students and imams or simply prayed regularly. Twenty-seven-year-old Bahedati Aken is being held in the same prison as Memanova's husband. Aken was sentenced last June to 15 years with an imam and at least five other students for studying the Quran. Here's his aunt, Gulbaran Omirali.

GULBARAN OMIRALI: (Through interpreter) He was 13 when he attended two months of religious courses. I do not understand why something so long ago and which was legal at the time is now a crime.

FENG: Relatives said their loved ones are sentenced in brief, closed trials where they are not given a chance to defend themselves or present their own evidence. Ergali Ermekuly is a Kazahk man who was sentenced in April 2013 to three years for downloading WhatsApp and traveling to Kazakhstan.

ERGALI ERMEKULY: (Through interpreter) They did tell me I could hire a lawyer, but based on cases of other people in the detention camp, those who hired lawyers were given longer sentences because it was seen as a sign of opposition to the state.

FENG: Ermekuly was one of 2,000 Kazakhs released in December 2018 as part of an agreement between Kazakhstan and China. But he says his life was destroyed because of his imprisonment and the emotional and mental trauma incurred. His wife divorced him this year.

ERMEKULY: (Through interpreter) I came back to Kazakhstan, but I have nothing.

FENG: But prisons aren't the only place detainees are going. Some are being released. But even when they are, they live within the strict confines of a surveillance state. They must report their weekly activities and get permission to travel between towns. Aydarhan Salamat's aunt, Meniarbek Mariya, is one of the many ethnic Kazakhs sentenced to prison this year. That's put Salamat's mother under scrutiny. Once, she left town for a funeral without public security permission.

AYDARHAN SALAMAT: (Through interpreter) The public security bureau called my nephew within an hour, demanding she come back. At checkpoints, my mother's identification card sets off alarms. My mother is 80 years old.

FENG: Relatives desperate to learn more about loved ones in Xinjiang are turning to a new potential source of information - the slow trickle of ethnic Kazakhs born in Xinjiang who can now get Chinese passports to travel to Kazakhstan. Muslim Xinjiang residents were effectively banned from getting passports starting in 2016. But as authorities wind down detentions, vetted Kazahks can visit family abroad as long as they leave loved ones as collateral in Xinjiang.

GULSERIK KAZYKHAN: (Through interpreter) If you don't return, the guarantors will suffer.

FENG: Gulserik Kazykhan explains how those who travel must name guarantors, like friends or relatives, who are punished if travelers don't return or meet people they aren't supposed to. Kazykhan has a relative who insisted on meeting her secretly - told her her brother-in-law, Raman uly Zahrkyn, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in February.

KAZYKHAN: (Through interpreter) My relative was forced to sign a document while crossing the border not to visit me.

FENG: Nurzat Yermekbai’s Chinese relative completely avoided visiting her in Almaty this August because Yermekbai is petitioning Kazakhstan about her brother, an imam in Xinjiang sentenced to 11 years in prison.

NURZAT YERMEKBAI: (Through interpreter) Now we're in this difficult situation where our families are separated and cannot communicate with each other, even in Kazakhstan, although my brother is innocent.

FENG: Her relatives are gripped by such fear they asked her to stop petitioning. This is what China has done, Yermekbai said. It turns your own family against you.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Almaty, Kazakhstan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "CANOPUS")

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