Two female members of an extended Muslim Uyghur family serving long prison sentences for committing religious â€œcrimesâ€ are believed to be held in a womenâ€™s prison in the town of Sanji (in Chinese, Changji) in Chinaâ€™s far-western Xinjiang region.
Additionally, two male members of the family and an in-law are also serving life terms, the wife of one of them said.
The women are Zahire Memet, who is now 38, and her sister-in-law Gulbostan Ibrahim, who is now 33. Zahire Memet was sentenced to 15 years in prison for wearing a hijab, while Gulbostan Ibrahim, who is also known as Bostan Ibrahim, was sentenced to 17 years for not confessing to holding religious activities at home.
They are from a family in Korla (in Chinese, Kuerle) that has been ripped apart by Chinaâ€™s persecution of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang, sources told RFA. Zahire Memetâ€™s mother Halcham Pazil and sisters Melikizat and Patigul Memet are also serving between seven and 20 years in Sanji Womenâ€™s Prison for religious activities in which they took part in 2013, according to a verdict issued by the Korla Municipal Peopleâ€™s Court in April 2019 and recently seen by RFA.
They all were retroactively sentenced after China criminalized such activities in 2018 when it issued de-extremification regulations targeting Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang, purportedly to prevent acts of terrorism and ensure social stability.
The charges against the family were brought by the Korla Municipal Procuratorate. Korla is the second-largest city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Zahire Memet, the third daughter of the family, â€œused to wear hijab and did not remove her hijab on time,â€ the verdict announcing her sentence said. Even though Chinese government officials repeatedly asked her not to wear a hijab, she continued doing so from 2010-2015, it said.
She was also convicted of attending religious preaching, providing a venue for religious instruction, and giving birth to one more child than permitted by law in 2015, the verdict said. She obstructed the law by â€œrelying on superstitionâ€ because she did not abort her child, the document states.
Gulbostan Ibrahim was convicted of not admitting she had held religious teachings at her home, even though others who attended reported having done so. The verdict did not mention other crimes.
Although Chinese court and prosecutorial officials in Korla initially did not provide any information to RFA about where Zahire and Gulbostan were serving their sentences, one later confirmed that Zahire was serving her sentence at the womenâ€™s prison.
â€œCell block No. 5,â€ the official said when asked where she was confined inside the detention center.
Another prison official confirmed to RFA that Zahire Mehmet was serving time there also. But another official took the phone and said they would not disclose information on Gulbostan Ibrahim because it was a â€œstate secretâ€ before hanging up.
After RFA ran earlier reports on the family, Yusup Firdavis, a Uyghur who lives in exile in Turkey, sent a message saying that he was the familyâ€™s neighbor in Korla. He told RFA over the telephone that the family had not done anything harmful to society.
â€œThey have not committed any crimes that can make them prisoners,â€ he said. â€œThis case is an example of Chinese racism against the whole Uyghur nation. I believe they are the victims of the Chinese policy to wipe out the Uyghurs from the surface of the earth. They are the victims of the Uyghur genocide.â€
Chinese government officials began confiscating copies of the Quran and prayer mats from Uyghur families in Korla in 2017. At that time, an official from the Korla village of Qarayulghuz said that some of the religious activities that had been permitted were now banned because they endanger national security.
Yusup Firdavis said that Uyghur families were initially confused about what religious practices they could maintain and which ones they had to abandon.
Brothers locked up for life
Kifaye Yaqup, who married into the family and lives in Istanbul, told RFA that four other family members were also convicted of similar crimes, with three receiving life sentences, including her husband, Mehmut Memet, her brother-in-law Musajan Memet, and Musajanâ€™s wife, Zohregul Hudaberdi. She did not mention the name of the fourth person.
Mehmut and Musajan are two of the three sons of Halchem Pazil.
Kifaye said Mehmut, 47, became a successful entrepreneur after he resigned from his job. She has not been able to communicate with any of them since their arrest.
In late 2015, Kifaye and Mehmut went to Turkey to enroll their children in school there, she said. While she stayed with the children, Mehmut returned to Xinjiang but visited Turkey periodically until October 2016 when the Chinese government confiscated his passport.
â€œMy husband is innocent,â€ Kifaye said. â€œHe didnâ€™t commit any crime that warrants any prison term, let alone life in jail.â€
Musajan Memet was expelled from Xinjiang University after he was found to have been praying while a student there, Kifaye said. Afterwards, he was arrested twice when the Xinjiang government stepped up measures against the Uyghurs to combat â€œterrorismâ€ under Chinaâ€™s new antiterrorism law.
The law, which took effect in January 2016, expanded the governmentâ€™s powers to monitor peaceful citizens, tighten censorship, and give officials greater legal cover to imprison ethnic and religious minorities.
Musajan was sentenced to five years after his first arrest in 2008 and to three years after his second arrest in 2015. He was released on bail in 2017 just as authorities began a major crackdown on Uyghurs, she said.
Musajan was later detained a third time and sentenced to life in prison, Kifaye said. His wife, Zohregul Hudaberdi, was also arrested then and received a life sentence. Her resignation from her job in the Korla municipal government was cited as evidence of her â€œcrime.â€
Chinese government officials in Korla contacted by RFA refused to give any information about the two Memet brothers. But a security official from a neighborhood committee in Korla confirmed that Mehmut had been sentenced to life in prison and that Musajan had been charged with â€œterrorism,â€ though he could not provide further details.
â€œHe is now in prison,â€ the official said. â€œHe was sentenced to life imprisonment. Musajan was arrested earlier.â€
RFA obtained a list from the Yangguang neighborhood committee in Korla of the names of local residents who had been sentenced. It listed Musajan as sentenced to life in prison on â€œterrorismâ€ charges and serving his term in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps prison in the city.