Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have detained a woman in an internment camp on suspicion of “religious extremism” after she intervened in a domestic dispute between her neighbors, according to authorities.
While investigating the detentions of women in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a network of internment camps since early 2017, RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with a police officer in the prefecture-level city of Turpan (in Chinese, Tulufan) who volunteered that a village elder named Zaytunhan Ismail had recently been arrested.
“I believe it was around January … it’s been quite a while now,” the officer from Turpan’s Chatqal township said of the 67-year-old Ismail.
She said that Ismail’s arrest stemmed from an incident that had occurred in her village a year earlier, when the husband of someone in the neighborhood “came back home drunk” and the couple “exchanged some words.”
“[Ismail] came and told him not to do this,” the officer said.
“His wife was pregnant, apparently, and she told him not to [fight with her] while she was carrying the baby. The man who’d come home drunk had been cursing [at his wife]. She told him he shouldn’t do that.”
According to the police officer, Ismail was “involved in neighborhood matters large and small” in her village, and frequently “set things right and [gave advice] on what not to do.”
For years, she said, Ismail had played a leading role in weddings and funerals, and received encouragement and recognition from the local village committee, which saw her as having contributed to social stability in the community.
Ismail was able to defuse the argument in a way that everyone appeared to agree with at the time, but apparently her intervention was deemed inappropriate by the village committee, which had been sent to break up the fight.
The police officer said that Ismail was taken into custody in January for “getting involved in a legal matter” and subsequently accused of “religious extremism” before being sent to a camp.
After denying the camps' existence initially, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the camps in the region as residential training centers that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.
Former detainees, several of whom plan to testify at the Uyghur Tribunal in June, have also described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.
Parliaments in Canada, The Netherlands, the U.K., Lithuania, and the U.S. State Department, have described China's actions in the region as "genocide," while the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says they constitute crimes against humanity.
The Italian parliament voted unanimously on Wednesday to condemn Chinese atrocities against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.
The motion, which calls on the Rome government to make a similar move, stops short of using the term genocide, but cites illegal birth control practices, repression of religious freedom, forced labor, internment camps, arbitrary detention, and massive digital surveillance.
Signs of ‘religious extremism’
According to the Chatqal officer, Ismail is also an experienced corpse-washer and had previously been commended by local authorities for her work preparing the bodies of Muslims in the community for burial, and “had knowledge of religion.”
It was not immediately clear whether Ismail’s work in corpse-washing posed a problem for her in interrogations, but if authorities were trying to find a reason to send her to the camps, they may have pointed to the role alcohol played in the incident last year that led to her detention.
In May 2017, RFA learned that authorities in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture’s Yengisar (Yingjisha) county sentenced a 67-year-old Uyghur Muslim to 10 years in prison for “religious extremism,” more than a decade after he scolded his son for breaking Islamic custom by drinking alcohol in the lead up to his wedding day.
The man was sentenced to No. 1 Prison in the XUAR capital Urumqi in September the same year, while the son who was reprimanded was sent to an area internment camp, according to the man’s wife, who said that Other families in the area had also been targeted for preventing their children from drinking alcohol.
In 2016, a village cadre in Hotan (Hetian) was fired from his job and accused of religious extremism after he hid his cigarette while visiting a local religious figure, who would have likely disapproved of tobacco usage. The incident was reported widely in Chinese media, followed by the international media.
Authorities have relied on a list of “75 Signs of Religious Extremism” to detain Uyghurs amid a string of harsh policies attacking their legitimate rights and freedoms enacted since Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the XUAR in August 2016.
Among the signs of extremism on the list were “conducting business as usual” and “women who wear religious clothing to work” during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, “storing or purchasing large quantities of food for home” and “acting abnormal,” and “praying in groups in public outside of mosques.”
But officials have told RFA that they were notified of several new “signs of extremism” security personnel should look for to determine whether a Uyghur is at risk of becoming an Islamic “radical,” including their postures while at prayer, the color of their hair, and even how they wear their watches.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.