Dramatic increase in prison sentences in Xinjiang since 2017
Since 2017, massive numbers of individuals from ethnic minority groups have been sent to prisons in Xinjiang. [[[Chinese Human Rights Defenders, “Criminal Arrests in Xinjiang Account for 21% of China’s Total in 2017: China’s Counter-Terror Campaign Indiscriminately Targets Ethnic & Religious Minorities in Xinjiang,” 25 July 2018 →;The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, The Elephant in the XUAR: II. Brand new prisons, expanding old prisons, & hundreds of thousands of new inmates, Gene A. Bunin, 4 January 2021 →]]] Journalists at The New York Times, relying entirely on Chinese government statistics, demonstrated that incarceration rates in Xinjiang increased dramatically in 2017 and 2018, with hundreds of thousands more people being sent to prisons than on average – a 10-fold increase – in previous years. The data reportedly include prison sentences and “other criminal punishments, which can include suspended sentences or house detention”. [[[New York Times. China’s Prisons Swell After Deluge of Arrests Engulfs Muslims: Arrests, trials and prison sentences have surged in Xinjiang, where Uighurs and Kazakhs also face reeducation, 31 August 2019 →; Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), 25 July 2018, www.nchrd.org/2018/07/criminal-arrests-in-xinjiang-account-for-21-of-chinas-total-in-2017]]] Since The New York Times investigation, the government has not released any more data on incarceration rates in Xinjiang.
It is not known how many – if any – of the people included in the official government statistics were initially sent to internment camps and then given prison sentences and transferred to prisons. There is evidence that some people – perhaps large numbers – have been sent from internment camps to prisons or other detention facilities. [[[Shohret Hoshur, Radio Free Asia, Xinjiang Authorities Secretly Transferring Uyghur Detainees to Jails Throughout China, 2 October 2018 →; Holly Robertson, ABC News, “China reportedly begins mass transfers of Uighur detainees from Xinjiang to prisons nationwide, 9 October 2018 →]]]
According to another report by Human Rights Watch, also relying on Chinese government statistics, in 2017 there was a dramatic increase in the number of lengthy sentences handed down by courts in Xinjiang. Before 2017, prison sentences longer than five years accounted for approximately 11% of the total number of people sentenced. In 2017, 87% of sentences were more than five years. [[[Human Rights Watch, China: Baseless Imprisonments Surge in Xinjiang – Harsh, Unjust Sentences for Uyghurs, Other Muslims, 24 February 2021 →]]]
Unlike people who are sent to internment camps, who undergo no meaningful legal process, people who are sent to prison are reportedly prosecuted and convicted in accordance with formal legal rules. [[[The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, The Elephant in the XUAR:III “In accordance with the law”, Gene A. Bunin, 19 April 2021 →]]] This legal process, however, fails in multiple respects to comply with international human rights law and standards related to fair trial rights. According to an academic analysis, authorities made public only about 10% of the criminal verdicts from Xinjiang in 2018, dramatically fewer than in the rest of the country. [[[The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, The Elephant in the XUAR:III “In accordance with the law”, Gene A. Bunin, 19 April 2021 →; and]]] Moreover, the overwhelming majority of those made public were for violent, property, or financial crimes – with fewer than 1% of the public verdicts related to “‘crimes’ typically applied to Xinjiang’s ethnic-minority population (e.g., ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’, ‘inciting ethnic hatred’, ‘disturbing social order’)”. Human Rights Watch’s analysis of 60 of the public verdicts “suggests that many people have been convicted and imprisoned without committing a genuine offense.” [[[Human Rights Watch, China: Baseless Imprisonments Surge in Xinjiang – Harsh, Unjust Sentences for Uyghurs, Other Muslims, 24 February 2021 →]]]
All of the former detainees Amnesty International interviewed for this report were detained in internment camps, not prisons. No one given a formal prison sentence and sent to prison in Xinjiang since 2017 has spoken publicly about their experience.