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VIII. Religious “Offenders” in Detention

The campaigns waged against “separatism” and “illegal religious activities” which gained momentum after 1996-1997 appear to have propelled a huge influx of Uighur prisoners into Xinjiang’s detention facilities.

There is a wide range of options available to the authorities in both the criminal and administrative systems for the prosecution of politically and religiously active Uighurs. In both systems, political instructions from the CCP and government have legal effect. For example, police and judges use CPP instructions to interpret the term “separatism” in the Criminal Code.

The conviction rate for criminal cases brought through the judiciary in the PRC is 98 percent, meaning that being indicted almost automatically results in a conviction.183 Most testimonies by Uighurs who have been detained claim that they suffered from various forms of torture.184 Of course, this makes convictions quite straightforward in a justice system with little regard for fair trial standards or the right to adequate defense counsel.

There are no “religious” crimes in Chinese law, so most “illegal religious activities” are prosecuted as other criminal or administrative offenses. The most serious are crimes of “endangering state security,” including “splitting the state” (fenlie guojia 分裂国家), “sabotaging the unity of the country” (pohuai guojia tongyi 破坏国家统一)185 or incitement to these acts. Defendants charged with endangering state security have diminished procedural protections and face politically motivated prosecutions and harsh punishments.186 Ordinary criminal provisions, more routinely applied, typically include those targeting illegal assembly, illegal processions, and the broad category of “disrupting public order.” Finally, the authorities make wide recourse to extra-judicial punishment such as reeducation through labor (RTL).

In prisons and RTL camps, Uighur political and religious prisoners are openly classified as a special category of detainees. Authorities refer to them as the “three types” (san lei renyuan 三类人员) or the “three categories of people” (san zhong ren 三种人). The “three types” designates detainees who have “harmed state security, joined illegal organizations, or distributed illegal religious material”; the “three categories” designates those who have “endangered state security, committed crimes with a view toward endangering state security, or are reactionary religious students or religious fanatics.”187

Official sources show that among Uighur prisoners in Xinjiang there is an unusually high proportion of criminals sentenced for state security offenses. A rare documentary source obtained by Human Rights Watch, a scholarly paper from a Ministry of Justice compendium, shows that in 2001 9.2 percent of convicted Uighurs––one out of eleven, ––were serving prison time for alleged “state security crimes.” This probably amounts to more than 1,000 Uighur prisoners.188

The sweeping scope of the law makes it difficult to discern which cases involved genuine criminal activity, such as violence against the state, and which were punishment for peaceful exercise of rights such as dissent or religious practice.

Ordinary criminal provisions are even more frequently applied to religious dissenters. Defendants have almost no recourse to challenge the charges levied against them. In most cases, the sentence is decided in advance by the authorities.189 This lack of due process apparently is justified by the chain of reasoning that causally associates expression of dissenting views or engagement in unapproved activities with “illegal” religious activities, ethnic separatism, and finally, terrorism.

No comprehensive statistical information on the exact number of Uighur prisoners or even the general inmate population of Xinjiang is publicly available. The Chinese authorities regard such information as state secrets and have not allowed independent monitoring of detention facilities in Xinjiang. International organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have not been able to reach agreement with the Chinese government concerning access to prisons, and a planned visit by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, which included Xinjiang, was abruptly cancelled in June 2004.190

However, official documents relating both to prison and reeducation through labor191 acknowledge openly that there has been a surge in the number of Uighurs detained for religious offenses since the mid-1990s. Some of these sources indicate that the number of detentions has created severe management problems in these facilities.192

The same documents stress that religious activities are strictly prohibited in prisons and reeducation through labor camps.193

In mid-2001, Ren Tieling, the deputy chief of the Xinjiang Reeducation through Labor Bureau, published a detailed report discussing the characteristics of the “three categories of persons” detained in RTL camps in Xinjiang. A version of the report, redacted by removing confidential elements such as the number of detainees, was published in the Ministry of Justice journal, Crime and Reform Studies. The report acknowledged that, as of 2001, there had been a “sharply upward trend” in the number of people sent to RTL camps on religious or political grounds. As the numbers “increased annually,” RTL camps became “jam-packed.”194

As we intensified our hitting power in recent years, an increasing number of those who joined illegal organizations, illegal publications and illegal religious groups…have been sent to be reeducated through labor. The number has increased annually and shown a sharp upward trend.195

According to the report, in the Kashgar RTL center, a survey of 117 prisoners showed that the majority had been sentenced because they “joined illegal organizations, took part in meetings, paid organizations fees,” while some others “sheltered escaped criminals and hid their arms and ammunitions for them, or provided lodgings.”196 

The report also sheds important light on the composition of the prisoner population, and confirms the suspicion that most ethnic Uighurs picked up under the “three categories” rubric in Xinjiang are young men who have been sent there on the basis of their religious belief or activities. The article distinguishes four groups of offenders and their percentage in the reeducation through labor population:

(a) those who joined illegal organizations and/or engaged in illegal religious activities make up 46 percent of the total [of the “three categories of persons”];

(b) those who printed or distributed illegal periodicals for illegal propaganda purposes make up 27.2 percent;

(c) those who sheltered criminals or unlawfully possessed guns and ammunition, provided funds to illegal organizations, or made living quarters or places for activities available, 19.3 percent.;

(d) those who illegally made explosives or illegally crossed the border, 7.1 percent.197

The same report relates that 85 percent of the convicts are between eighteen and thirty years old, a fact that mirrors the official focus on cracking down on incipient religious enthusiasm among the young.198 The demographics indicate that the purpose of the operation is to discourage young Uighurs from engaging in religious activity.

For the authorities, the benefit of using RTL is that no judicial procedure is involved. Thus, the Public Security Bureau has a free hand to detain individuals for as long as four years without having to prove that they actually committed a crime.

[183] Law Yearbook of China (Beijing: China Legal Publishing House, 2003), [中国法律年鉴 (北京:中国法律出版社),2003].

[184] See Amnesty International, “Gross Violations of Human Rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” April 1999 [AI Index: ASA 17/18/99].

[185] Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, Art. 103 [中华人民共和国刑法, 第一百零三条].

[186] See Human Rights in China and Human Rights Watch/Asia (joint report), "Whose Security? ‘State Security’ in China's New Criminal Code," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 9, no. 4, April 1997.

[187] “Studies on the Reeducation of China’s National Minorities Criminals,” in Lu Jialun, ed., Ministry of Justice’s Ministerial Level Topics Series (Beijing: Legal Publishing House, 2001), p. 125. [鲁加伦, “新疆劳教速写” in 中国少数民族罪犯改造研究 (北京:法律出版社-中国司法:部及课题丛书, 第125页]. The statistics refer to convicts in the normal criminal justice system, and not to detainees under reeducation through labor.

[188] Ibid.

[189] The instrumentalization of the judicial system for political ends remains a dominant feature of China’s legal system. According to Stanley Lubman, one of the foremost legal experts on China, “The Chinese criminal process remains dominated not only by the police, but by a blatant instrumentalism that puts it at the service of the CCP and political leaders when they wish to use it.” Stanley B. Lubman, Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China after Mao (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 171.

[190] Human Rights in China, “Postponement of Torture Mission ‘Disappointing,’” June 16, 2004. [中国人权新闻发布, “中国人权关于中国政府再次推迟酷刑调查的声明,” 2004年6月16日].

[191] Reeducation through labor: (laodong jiaoyu [劳动教育]) is a system of extra-judicial detention and punishment, administratively imposed on those who are deemed to have committed minor offenses. The usual procedure is for the police acting on their own to determine a reeducation term. Sentences run from six months to three years' confinement in a camp or farm, often longer than for similar criminal offenses. A term can be extended for a fourth year if, in the prison authorities' judgment, the recipient has not been sufficiently reeducated, fails to admit guilt, or violates camp discipline.

[192] “The Course of the Work of Reeducation Through Labor in Xinjiang,” Crime and Reform Studies, January 2001. [“新疆劳教工作的历程,” 犯罪与改造研究, 2001年01月]. For the situation in prisons, see above “Studies on the Reeducation of China’s National Minorities Criminals,” in Lu Jialun, ed., Ministry of Justice’s Ministerial Level Topics Series (Beijing: Legal Publishing House, 2001).

[193] Article 2 of the Interim Provisions promulgated by the Justice Department of Xinjiang clearly stipulates that no religious activity is allowed in prisons and places of reeducation through labor: “Prisoners and persons undergoing rehabilitation through labor may not engage in any form of religious activity in prison or place of rehabilitation through labor during their term of imprisonment or incarceration. Activities such as fasting, prayer, worship or expounding the texts of Islam or Buddhism are prohibited.” Such regulations breach China’s own laws and regulations and basic international human rights standards. Article 42 of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners sets forth that “So far as practicable, every prisoner shall be allowed to satisfy the needs of his religious life by attending the services provided in the institution and having in his possession the books of religious observance and instruction of his denomination”; “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners,” United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, 1957, [online]

[194] “The Course of the Work of Reeducation Through Labor in Xinjiang,” Crime and Reform Studies, January 2001, p. 23.

[195] “Studies on the Reeducation of China’s National Minorities Criminals,” in Lu Jialun, ed., Ministry of Justice’s Ministerial Level Topics Series (Beijing: Legal Publishing House, 2001).

[196] Ibid.

[197] “The Course of the Work of Reeducation Through Labor in Xinjiang,” Crime and Reform Studies, January 2001, p. 23.

[198] Ibid.

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