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‘Infected’: data shows how China criminalized the Muslim faith


BEIJING: For decades, the Uyghur imam was the cornerstone of its agricultural community in the extreme west of China. On Fridays, he preached Islam as a religion of peace. On Sundays, he treated the sick with free herbal medicine. In the winter, he bought coal for the poor.
But as a campaign of mass detention by the Chinese government involved the native Xinjiang region of Memtimin Emer three years ago, the old imam was swept and locked up, along with his three children living in China.
Now, a recently disclosed database exposes in extraordinary detail the main reasons for the arrests of Emer, his three children and hundreds of people in Karakax County: their religion and family ties.
The database obtained by The Associated Press describes the internment of 311 people with relatives abroad and lists information on more than 2,000 of their relatives, neighbors and friends. Each entry includes the name, address, national identity number, date and place of detention, along with a detailed file on your family, religious and neighborhood background, the reason for the arrest and a decision on whether to release them or do not. Issued in the last year, the documents do not indicate which government department compiled them or for whom.
Together, the information offers the most complete and personal vision so far of how Chinese officials decided who to put and leave the detention camps, as part of a massive repression that has locked more than one million ethnic minorities, the majority They muslims.
The database emphasizes that the Chinese government focused on religion as a reason for detention, not only in political extremism, as the authorities claim, but in ordinary activities such as praying, attending a mosque or even growing a beard. It also shows the role of the family: people with detained relatives are much more likely to end up in a camp, uprooting and criminalizing entire families like Emer in the process.
Similarly, family history and attitude are a more important factor than the behavior of detainees in determining whether they are released.
“It is very clear that religious practice is being directed,” said Darren Byler, a researcher at the University of Colorado who studies the use of surveillance technology in Xinjiang. “They want to fragment society, separate families and make them much more vulnerable to recycling and reeducation.”
The Xinjiang regional government did not respond to faxes requesting comments. When asked if Xinjiang is targeting religious people and their families, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that “it is not worth commenting on such nonsense.”
Beijing has said before that the detention centers are for voluntary job training, and that it does not discriminate on religious grounds.
China has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where native Uighurs have long resented Beijing’s hard-handed government. With the September 11 attacks in the United States, officials began using the spectrum of terrorism to justify more severe religious restrictions, saying that young Uyghurs were susceptible to Islamic extremism.
After militants detonated bombs at a train station in the capital of Xinjiang in 2014, President Xi Jinping launched the “People’s War on Terror”, transforming Xinjiang into a digital police state.
The leaking of the database of Uyghur exile community sources follows the publication in November of a classified plan on how the mass detention system actually works. The preliminary draft obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which includes the PA, showed that the centers are, in fact, forced ideological and behavioral reeducation camps that are executed in secret. Another set of documents leaked to the New York Times revealed the period prior to mass detention.
The last set of documents came from sources in the Uyghur exile community, and the most recent date on them is March 2019. The detainees listed are from Karakax County, a traditional settlement of some 650,000 on the edge of the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang, where more than 97 percent of residents are Uyghurs. The list was corroborated through interviews with former residents of Karakax, Chinese identity verification tools and other lists and documents seen by the AP.
The detainees and their families are tracked and classified by rigid and well defined categories. Households are designated as “reliable” or “untrustworthy,” and their attitudes are described as “normal” or “good.” Families have “light” or “heavy” religious atmospheres, and the database keeps track of how many relatives of each detainee are locked up in prison or sent to a “training center.”
Officials used these categories to determine how suspicious a person was, even if they had not committed any crime.
“It underlines the government’s witch hunt mentality and how the government criminalizes everything,” said Adrian Zenz, an expert in detention centers and a member of the Memorial Foundation for the Victims of Communism in Washington, D.C.
The reasons listed for hospitalization include “minor religious infection”, “disturbs other people by visiting them for no reason”, “relatives abroad”, “it is difficult to understand” and “untrustworthy person born in a given decade”. The latter seems to refer to younger men; According to an analysis of Zenz data, about 31 percent of people considered “untrustworthy” were between 25 and 29 years old.
When former student Abdullah Muhammad saw Emer’s name on the list of detainees, he was distraught.
“I did not deserve this,” Muhammad said. “Everyone loved him and respected him. He was the kind of person who could not remain silent against injustice.”
Even in Karakax County, famous for its intellectuals and academics, Emer stood out as one of the most recognized teachers in the region. Muhammad studied the Quran under Emer for six years as a child, following him from house to house in an effort to dodge the authorities. Muhammad said Emer was so respected that the police would call him with warnings before assaulting classes in his modest brick and mud home.
Although Emer gave Party-approved sermons, he refused to preach communist propaganda, Muhammad said, and finally had problems with the authorities. He was stripped of his position as a magnet and was banned from teaching in 1997, amid the disturbances that shook the region.
When Muhammad left China for Saudi Arabia and Turkey in 2009, Emer made a living as a traditional medicine doctor. Emer was getting older and, under strong surveillance, had stopped attending religious meetings.
That did not prevent the authorities from arresting the imam, who is over 80 years old, and sentenced him for several charges for up to 12 years in prison during 2017 and 2018. The database cites four charges in several entries: “agitate terrorism” . acting as an unauthorized “wild” magnet, following the strict Saudi Wahhabi sect and carrying out illegal religious teachings.
Muhammad described the charges as false. Emer had stopped preaching, practiced a moderate sect of Central Asian Islam instead of Wahhabism and never dreamed of hurting others, much less provoking “terrorism,” Muhammad said.
“I used to always preach against violence,” Muhammad said. “Anyone who knows him can testify that he was not a religious extremist.”
None of Emer’s three children had been convicted of a crime. But the database shows that in the course of 2017, everyone was thrown into detention camps for having too many children, trying to travel abroad, being “unreliable” or “infected with religious extremism,” or going to Hajj , the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. It also shows that his relationship with Emer and his religious background were enough to convince officials that they were too dangerous to leave the detention camps.
“His father taught him to pray,” notes an entry for his elder, Ablikim Memtimin.
“The religious environment of his family is dense. We recommend that he (Emer) continue training,” says another entry for his youngest son, Emer Memtimin.
Even a neighbor was contaminated by living near him, with the alleged crimes and the prison sentence of Emer recorded in the neighbor’s file.
The database indicates that much of this information is collected by teams of cadres stationed in mosques, sent to visit homes and published in communities. This information is compiled in a dossier called the “three circles”, which covers family members, community and religious background.
It was not only the religious who were arrested. The database shows that Karakax officials also explicitly addressed people for activities that included going abroad, obtaining a passport or installing foreign software.
The pharmacist Tohti Himit was arrested in a camp for having gone several times to one of the 26 “key” countries, mostly Muslim, according to the database. Former employee Habibullah, who is now in Turkey, remembered Himit as a secular, kind and rich man who kept his face beard free.
“He was not very pious, he did not go to the mosque,” said Habibullah, who refused to give his name for fear of reprisals against the family still in China. “I was surprised how absurd the reasons for the arrest were.”
The database says the cadres discovered that Himit had attended his grandfather’s funeral at a local mosque on March 10, 2008. Later that year, the cadres discovered that he had gone to the same mosque again, once to worship and another to celebrate a festival. In 2014, he had gone to Anhui Province, in the interior of China, to obtain a passport and go abroad.
That, the government concluded, was enough to prove that Himit was “certainly dangerous.” Himit was ordered to stay in the center and “continue training.”
Emer is now under house arrest due to health problems, his former student, Muhammad, has heard. It is not clear where Emer’s children are.
Muhammad said it was the courage and stubbornness of the imam that caught him. Although deprived of his mosque and his right to teach, Emer silently challenged the authorities for two decades by staying true to his faith.
“Unlike other academics, he never cared about money or anything else the Communist Party could give him,” Muhammad said. “He never bowed to them, and that’s why they wanted to eliminate him.”

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