According to officials, a Uyghur academic director and prolific translator who is the brother of an RFA reporter was sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence after spending two years in an internment camp in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for “religious extremism.”
Ahmetjan Juma, whose brother 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 missing Uyghur intellectuals compiled by the Norway-based “Uyghuryar” Foundation.
The academic director of Kashgar’s No. 1 Middle School, renowned for his excellent literary translations, disappeared at the same time as authorities in the XUAR launched a programme of mass incarceration that has seen up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities detained in a vast network of internment camps across the country.
Though Beijing initially denied the camps’ presence, China changed its stance in 2019 and began referring to them as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, prevent radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
However, RFA and other media outlets have reported that those imprisoned in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, regularly face harsh treatment at the hands of their overseers, and suffer from unhealthy diets and unsanitary conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities. Former prisoners have also reported being tortured, raped, sterilized, and subjected to other violations while in detention.
According to Abduweli Ayup, the founder of Uyghuryar and a scholar, Juma’s school was “an early goal” of the initiative. Other detained educators from the same college, according to him, include principal Ablajan Mamat and geography teacher Sajidigul Ayup.
Juma was the first person to vanish from the school, which Ayup described as the “brains” of Kona Sheher in the eyes of Chinese authorities, implying that as a Uyghur school, officials saw it as a place where information could be transmitted outside of state control.
“In 2017, I learned of Ahmetjan Juma’s detention,” he said. “Ahmetjan was arrested during the first round of detentions. He’s one of the thinkers. ”
RFA recently spoke with a police officer in Kona Sheher’s Toqquzaq (Tuokezhake) township who said he works on national security matters and was aware of Juma’s situation. He reported that Juma was detained in a camp in 2017, and that the former academic director was sentenced to prison in mid-2019 while receiving recognition for the signs of “development” he displayed while in internment.
“There was a book they found in his home, and that was obviously the reason he was detained,” he explained, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“They said he was the author of an extremist novel. But I don’t know [the specifics]. ”
According to the officer, Juma’s arrest was also related to his involvement in organizational activities, which he described as a “mistake.”
“They didn’t say anything about him being involved in an incident, but they did say he did something about organizations,” he said.
While the officer had not served in Juma’s case, he was aware that the instructor was later tried and imprisoned.
“There was a hearing.” How could he have been convicted if there had not been a trial? “he asked, adding that the court had only listed the” extremist “book as part of his sentencing, without going into further detail. “They said something along the lines of 14 years [in prison].”
Juma had spent two years in an internment camp in Kona Sheher’s Opal township, where he had served for 28 months, according to the officer.
“He’s always known the national language very well,” the officer said, referring to Juma’s proficiency in Mandarin Chinese during his time at the base.
Juma had been detained twice before, according to Ayup, which may have contributed to his targeting during the 2017 sweep—once for a month in 2006, and again from July 2009 to November of that year in the wake of deadly unrest in the XUAR capital Urumqi.
According to China’s official figures, 200 people were killed and 1,700 were wounded in the three-day spree of violence that started on July 5, 2009 in Urumqi between ethnic minority Uyghurs and Han Chinese, while Uyghur rights groups say the numbers are much higher.
Ayup claimed that following the July 5 unrest, Juma went to the US Embassy in Beijing to obtain a visa to travel to the United States, which resulted in his detention that year.
“[Both times], Ahmetjan got out thanks to the hard work of [people from] the school, the education bureau,” he said, citing his academic achievements and community contributions.
According to Ayup, who has a friendly relationship with Juma, the former academic director is known not only for being a good teacher but also for his active involvement in his culture.
Juma was a literary translator and educational scholar who wrote textbooks and other pedagogical works in addition to his work at the school. Ayup worked on a series of high school textbooks he wrote, including titles like The World and Me, History and Me, and Society and Me, which were published in Turkey last year.
“The books were released in Istanbul in 2020 to commemorate Ahmetjan’s three-year detention,” Ayup explained.
Juma was working on a translation of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns from English into Uyghur at the time of his death, which never went to print.
According to PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index, China has the largest number of imprisoned authors, academics, and scholars, including at least 40 imprisoned Uyghur intellectuals. The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), based in Washington, has reported hundreds of disappeared Uyghur scholars.
The Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy released a report in March claiming that China has shown “intent to destroy” the Uyghur ethnic minority and thus bears state responsibility for genocide, in the first independent report to examine allegations of violence in the XUAR.
The mass internment program, as well as other state policies such as government-mandated homestays, a mass birth-prevention policy, the forcible relocation of Uyghur children to state-run facilities, the eradication of Uyghur identity, and the selective targeting of intellectuals and other leaders, were cited as proof of intent to kill the ethnic group in the study.
The US government determined in January that human rights abuses in the region amounted to genocide, a label that has since been adopted by parliaments in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.