The head of Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture’s Department of Transportation in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has been confirmed jailed for seven years, along with several members of his fraternal organization for Uyghur men, according to official sources.
RFA’s Uyghur Service recently received a tip from a person claiming knowledge of the situation in Kashgar who said that a fraternal group of 16 men known as a “meshrep” had been detained, and that as many as 14 had been given prison sentences after more than a year of “re-education.”
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal, said that at least one of the meshrep’s jailed members is Kashgar Prefecture transportation chief Abliz Tohtaji, while another is Obulqasim Abdurehim, an engineer for the Kashgar branch of China Telecom.
They said the group was detained for “illegal gathering and organizing” in May 2017—during the early phase of a campaign of mass extralegal incarceration that has seen authorities hold up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps throughout the XUAR.
Their “crimes” were related to the organizing of the meshrep, held in 2014 and earlier, the source said, which included well-respected and influential members of Kashgar society who worked in the economic, administrative, and artistic realms. The men, all close friends since childhood, had met regularly to play music and tell jokes—often features of a meshrep gathering.
Meshrep is a form of private, grassroots gathering that often includes social, entertainment, and moral functions all layered in a single setting. Authorities in the XUAR have approached the custom in a haphazard way in recent decades—banning it in some parts of the region and encouraging it in others. A state-sanctioned form of meshrep is on an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
According to the source, Tohtaji and his friends typically stayed far away from any involvement in sensitive local matters, abstaining from involvement in much other than work and family life. In years past, on the recommendation of elders and religious leaders in their Kashgar neighborhoods, they had begun raising money through their meshrep gatherings, which they then distributed to neighbors in need.
The religious leaders, who often distributed money the men had raised, were reportedly detained around May 2014, when XUAR authorities published a new set of regulations on “anti-extremism” measures. Tohtaji and some of the other men from the meshrep were also reportedly detained and interrogated on several occasions in 2014, although they were eventually all let go. They stopped holding meshreps after their encounters with the police in 2014; however, the source suggested that their involvement with the meshreps was the reason behind their eventual detention and sentencing.
RFA spoke with several relevant government offices in Kashgar to verify the accuracy of the source’s claims but, citing heavy restrictions on answering phone calls from abroad, questions pertaining to the meshrep went unanswered.
A political officer at the Kashgar Police Department said he was unaware of the situation involving the 16 men from the meshrep and said he was unable to answer any questions over the phone.
“We’ve got some notices now. One is about reporters who want to know about certain cases, and the other is about how we can’t respond to unknown people who call asking about this and that,” he said.
RFA also contacted an employee at the Kashgar Department of Transportation who said that Tohtaji doesn’t work there, before hanging up the phone.
However, in a second phone call, another employee at the same department confirmed that an employee named Tohtaji did work there.
“We do have one but it’s not convenient [right now] for me to personally look into their details,” she said, adding that “I don’t know much [about him].”
An employee at the Kashgar Prefectural Party Committee office provided confirmation that Tohtaji had been detained.
“He’s not [working] there now,” she said, when asked whether Tohtaji was employed at the Department of Transportation.
When asked whether Tohtaji had been taken into custody, the employee responded, “yes, he has.” She also confirmed that the Party Committee had circulated a notice about his situation, before referring further questions to higher-level authorities.
‘Small’ punishment by comparison
But a police officer working for the neighborhood committee presiding over Tohtaji’s Kashgar home told RFA the former transportation official was sentenced to “seven years,” which he called a relatively “small” punishment compared to many of his friends, owing to his “good behavior” while in interrogation.
The officer confirmed that there is no longer any record of Tohtaji at the Department of Transportation, and when asked whether he had been taken into custody because he gave donations from his meshrep, replied, “yes.”
“[He’s serving his sentence in] Pailu, the prison in Yarkand,” he said, referring to the county in Kashgar also known as Shache in Mandarin Chinese.
With regards to Tohtaji’s fellow meshrep members, the officer told RFA, “they’ve already been sentenced” and that his neighborhood committee had handed over their verdicts to their families.
The officer would not share any concrete information regarding Tohtaji’s supposed crimes or the names and other details of the men from his meshrep group who have also been sentenced.
The imprisonment of Tohtaji demonstrates how not even civil servants are safe amid a campaign of mass incarceration in the XUAR. Many targeted former officials have also ended up in the camps they have helped to populate, which Beijing has labeled voluntary centers for “vocational training” that protect the region against “religious extremism” and “terrorism.”
Reporting by RFA and other media outlets, however, shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.