“China has sentenced 20 people to up to 15 years in jail for advocating violence and separatism in the far western region of Xinjiang, where the central government has clamped down on dissent and restricted religious practices,” AP reports.
The convictions of the 20 cyber activists demonstrates the government’s abuse of terrorism charges as a pretext for suppressing Uyghur dissidents, said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress.
“The aim is to terrorise Uyghurs into abandoning their rights,” he said.
The news coincides with reports that Beijing’s communist authorities are discouraging Muslims from fasting during Ramadan. While the government claims its initiative is health-related, rights activists say it amounts to a campaign of secularization to undermine Uyghur identity.
“It is no coincidence that these sentences happened against the backdrop of increasing religious repression in the region,” said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association.
“It is meant as a message to the Uyghur people telling them to abandon their faith or face charges of extremism, even for simple expressions of religious belief. All these measures do is further alienate Uyghurs if that is possible.”
“Citing the need to ‘maint[ain] social stability during the Ramadan period’ the Zonglang township in the Kashgar district issued a statement reminding citizens that ‘It is forbidden for Communist Party cadres, civil officials (including those who have retired) and students to participate in Ramadan religious activities,’” Foreign Policy blog’s Alexandra Evans reports:
Xinjiang’s Zonglang village has banned civil servants and students from taking part in Ramadan. In Onsu county, students and teachers were cautioned against observing the religious holiday.
Such rules are familiar in Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan) but the regime is enforcing them more strictly this year, said Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti.
“The ethnic identity of Uyghurs is being systematically eroded,” according to a recent report from Amnesty International.
“Ramadan provides an especially important inflection point this year,” say Azizah al-Hibri and M. Zuhdi Jasser of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
“In this time of reflection, we are particularly disturbed that Muslims and non-Muslims alike continue to have their right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion violated by governments, religious extremists, and sometimes even their misguided neighbors,” they write:
Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declare that countries must uphold principles of religious freedom, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom to change one’s religion or belief; and the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief peacefully.
“The recent intensification of restrictions on Uyghur religious expression will bring further instability to East Turkestan,” the Uyghur American Association (UAA) has warned, citing reports of state-mandated curbs on religious practices during Ramadan:
On July 23, 2012, Radio Free Asia and on August 2, 2012, the Financial Times reported the establishment by local authorities across East Turkestan of “security and stability work plans” during Ramadan, which began on July 20, 2012. Under the plans, officials are posted to mosques across the region to monitor if government employees, teachers and students are attending prayers for the duration of the holy month.
In the same Radio Free Asia article, World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilshat Raxit stated that in Aksu searches for “illegal” religious publications (referring to any non-state produced material) were underway and that government officials had ordered Uyghur restaurants to remain open during daylight hours for Ramadan. Raxit added that mosques were required to hold ideological meetings with Chinese Communist Party officials to gauge the “mood” of Uyghurs attending prayers.
Furthermore, an article from AFP dated August 1, 2012 detailed restrictions on Uyghur religious practice during Ramadan put in place by authorities at various levels of political administration. A statement on a website for a township near Kashgar read, “It is forbidden for Communist Party cadres, civil officials (including those who have retired) and students to participate in Ramadan religious activities.” Similar restrictions were posted on the Onsu County website, which ordered schools to forbid entry to the mosque by students. AFP added that the regional government website was encouraging people to bring gifts of food to officials during the month of fasting….
In the past week, the U.S. State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have criticized China for its repression of Uyghur religious rights. The State Department’s 2011 Religious Freedom Report declared repression of Muslim Uyghurs was “severe” and that religious freedom in China as a whole had declined “markedly.” In a press release condemning the Ramadan restrictions dated July 25, 2012, USCIRF stated, “Religious freedom conditions in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] have declined rapidly since the ethnic violence of June 2009…Restrictions on Uighur Muslim religious activities have caused deep resentment with Beijing’s oversight of the XUAR.”
Prior to the Ramadan measures, 2012 had seen a number of instances of curbs on religious freedom. Authorities in the Gujanbagh neighborhood of Hotan announced on June 7, 2012 a plan to conduct house-to-house searches. The announcement followed a police raid of an “illegal” religious schoolfor children in Hotan, the death of a Uyghur childin police custody for studying Islamic prayer in the city of Korla, and the sentencing of nine Uyghur men in the city of Kashgar for their involvement with “illegal religious schools” or religious instruction.