Uyghur School Director, Brother of RFA Reporter Jailed For 14 Years After Stint in Xinjiang Camp
RFA. 3 May 2021
Below is an article published by RFA. Photo:RFA.
A Uyghur academic director and prolific translator who is the brother of an RFA reporter has been sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence following two years spent in an internment camp in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for “religious extremism,” according to officials.
Ahmetjan Juma, whose brother Mamatjan Juma is the deputy director of RFA’s Uyghur Service, went missing from his home prefecture of Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) in 2017 and was added to a list of disappeared Uyghur intellectuals compiled by the Norway-based “Uyghuryar” Foundation.
The academic director of the No. 1 Middle School in Kashgar’s Kona Sheher (Shufu) county, who was known for his excellent literary translations, vanished around the same time that authorities in the XUAR rolled out a campaign of mass incarceration that has since seen up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held in a vast network of internment camps throughout the region.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities. Former detainees have also described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.
According to Abduweli Ayup, a researcher and the founder of Uyghuryar, Juma’s school was “an early target” of the campaign. He said other detained educators from the same school include principal Ablajan Mamat and geography teacher Sajidigul Ayup.
Juma was the first person to disappear from the school, which Ayup said is seen as the “brains” of Kona Sheher in the eyes of the Chinese authorities, suggesting that as a Uyghur school, officials believed it to be a place where knowledge outside of state supervision could be transmitted.
“I received news of Ahmetjan Juma’s detention in 2017,” he said. “Ahmetjan was detained in … the first wave of detentions. He’s one of the intellectuals.”
RFA recently spoke with a police officer in Kona Sheher’s Toqquzaq (Tuokezhake) township who said that he works on matters of national security and was aware of Juma’s case. He confirmed that Juma had been detained in a camp in 2017, adding that the former academic director was later sentenced to prison in mid-2019 despite having received praise for the signs of “change” he showed while in internment.
“There was a book they found in his house, and that was apparently the reason he was detained,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
“They said he had a book with extremist content. I don’t know [the details], though.”
Juma’s arrest was also connected to his involvement in organizational activities, the officer said, characterizing them as a “mistake.”
“They didn’t say anything about him being involved in an incident, but they said he did things about organizations,” he said.
The officer said that while he hadn’t worked on Juma’s case, he knew that the educator was later tried and jailed.
“A trial was held. How could he have been sentenced if there wasn’t a trial,” he said, adding that the court had only mentioned the “extremist” book as part of his sentence, without elaborating. “They said something like 14 years [in prison].”
According to the officer, Juma had spent two years in an internment camp in Kona Sheher’s Opal township where he had worked for 28 months.
“He’s always known the national language very well,” the officer said, referring to what he knew of Juma’s ability in Mandarin Chinese during his time at the camp.
Teacher and community leader
Ayup told RFA that Juma had been detained twice before, which may have led to his being targeted during the sweep in 2017—once for a month in 2006, and again from July 2009 until November of that year in the aftermath of deadly unrest in the XUAR capital Urumqi.
Some 200 people died and 1,700 were injured in the three-day rampage of violence that began on July 5, 2009 in Urumqi between ethnic minority Uyghurs and Han Chinese, according to China’s official figures, although Uyghur rights groups say the numbers are much higher.
Ayup said that after the July 5 unrest, Juma went to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to get a visa to go to the U.S., which led to his detention that year.
“[Both times], Ahmetjan got out thanks to the hard work of [people from] the school, the education bureau,” he said, who had advocated on his behalf, citing his academic work and contributions he had made to the community.
According to Ayup, who says that he had a friendly relationship with Juma, the former academic director is known not only for being a good teacher but also for his active participation in his community.
In addition to his work at the school, Juma was also a literary translator and an educational researcher who published textbooks and other pedagogical works. A series of high-school textbooks he wrote, including titles like The World and Me, History and Me, Society and Me, were published in Turkey last year, which Ayup worked on.
“The books were published in Istanbul in 2020 as a way of commemorating the three-year anniversary of Ahmetjan’s detention,” Ayup said.
At the time of Juma’s disappearance, he was working on the translation of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns from English into Uyghur, which never went to press.
Juma’s family members are among more than 50 relatives of RFA’s Uyghur Service staff who have been confirmed held in some form of Chinese state detention, alongside the millions either in the camps or sentenced to prison for activities deemed “religious extremism” by authorities.
According to the 2020 Freedom to Write Index published by PEN America, China is among the countries with the highest number of imprisoned writers, intellectuals, and researchers, including at least 40 imprisoned Uyghur intellectuals. Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) has documented hundreds of disappeared Uyghur scholars.
In March, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy published a report which said that China has demonstrated “intent to destroy” the Uyghur ethnic minority, and therefore bears state responsibility for committing genocide, in the first independent report to investigate claims of abuses in the XUAR.
The report counted the mass internment campaign, as well as other state policies such as government-mandated homestays, a mass birth-prevention strategy, the forcible transfer of Uyghur children to state-run facilities, the eradication of Uyghur identity, and the selectively targeting of intellectuals and other leader as evidence of intent to destroy the ethnic group.
The U.S. government determined in January that rights violations in the region amount to genocide—a label that has since been similarly applied by the parliaments of Canada, The Netherlands, and the U.K.