A Uyghur engineer with the Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture branch of a state-run telecom company in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has been sentenced to a lengthy jail term for having rejected local family planning policies, according to 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 Obulqasim Abdurehim, a 47-year-old 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 mostly 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.
The source said that after detaining Abdurehim, authorities were determined to unearth his past “mistakes” and interrogated him for six months before he admitted to the “crime” of refusing authorities’ demand that his wife abort her pregnancy 10 years earlier.
According to the source, Abdurehim’s wife was pregnant when the couple received a notice from family-planning authorities demanding that they have an abortion because the child would be their third—a violation of regulations at the time that restricted minorities to two children per family. Rather than abort the child, Abdurehim and his wife paid a fine to the local government.
However, after acknowledging the violation during his interrogation in 2017, authorities told Abdurehim that it constituted evidence of “religious extremism” and locked him up, despite him having accepted the fine as his punishment at the time of the incident. The source said he was later handed a 17-year jail term, which he is currently serving at the Qosheriq Prison in Korgas (Huocheng) county, in the XUAR’s Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture.
Additionally, the source told RFA that while Abdurehim had paid a fine for violating the family-planning policy a decade earlier, authorities had reportedly fined his family another 90,000 yuan (U.S. $13,900) after his detention in 2017. They said Aburehim’s wife paid the fine in hopes that her husband would be released, to no avail.
In order to verify the claims, RFA spoke with a security officer from Kashgar city’s Qizildowe neighborhood whose department has jurisdiction over the area where the meshrep was held.
When asked about the men who were targeted from the group, the officer acknowledged that Abdurehim had been among those detained in 2017 and said, “he’s still there.”
However, the officer said he was unsure of where Abdurehim is being held or whether he had been sentenced to prison for anything.
“There’s been no news of him since they took him to the re-education center,” he said, using a euphemism for an internment camp.
Another employee of the neighborhood committee who answered the phone gave more clarity on why Abdurehim and his friends were detained in 2017.
“They’d organized and taken part in meshreps,” he said.
RFA also called the Kashgar Municipal Family-Planning Department and spoke with an employee who, when asked whether Abdurehim’s case had to do with violating limitations on the number of children in minority families, said, “it does.”
However, she claimed that she was “unfamiliar with this man’s records” and referred further questions about him to a cadre at the department who she said had worked there for much longer.
The cadre told RFA that Abdurehim had been sentenced to “17 years” and said, “he’s been moved around a number of times.”
She did not confirm whether the engineer is being held at Qosheriq Prison in Korgas county.
RFA was also unable to independently verify whether Abdurehim’s family had been fined again after his 2017 detention.
Earlier this month, RFA learned that another member of the same meshrep, Kashgar Prefecture transportation chief Abliz Tohtaji, had been jailed for seven years for his involvement in the group. An official source called the sentence a relatively “small” punishment compared to many of his friends, owing to his “good behavior” while in interrogation.
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, without providing further details.
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 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.