For decades, the Uighur imam was a bedrock of his farming community. 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 Chinese government mass detention campaign engulfed Memtimin Emer's native Xinjiang region three years ago, the elderly imam was swept up and locked away, along with all three of his sons living in China.
Now, a newly revealed database exposes in extraordinary detail the main reasons for the detentions of Emer, his three sons, and hundreds of others in Karakax County: their religion and their family ties.
The database obtained by The Associated Press profiles the internment of 311 individuals with relatives abroad and lists information on more than 2,000 of their relatives, neighbors and friends. Each entry includes the detainee’s name, address, national identity number, detention date and location, along with a detailed dossier on their family, religious and neighborhood background, the reason for detention, and a decision on whether or not to release them. Issued within the past year, the documents do not indicate which government department compiled them or for whom.
Taken as a whole, the information offers the fullest and most personal view yet into how mainland officials decided who to put into and let out of detention camps, as part of a massive crackdown that has locked away more than a million ethnic minorities, most of them Muslims.
The database appears to show that the Chinese government focused on religion as a reason for detention — not just political extremism, as authorities claim, but ordinary activities such as praying, attending a mosque, or even growing a long beard. It also shows the role of family: People with detained relatives are far more likely to end up in a camp themselves, uprooting and criminalizing entire families like Emer's in the process.
Similarly, family background and attitude is a bigger factor than detainee behavior in whether they are released.
It’s very clear that religious practice is being targeted,” said Darren Byler, a University of Colorado researcher studying the use of surveillance technology in Xinjiang. “They want to fragment society, to pull the families apart and make them much more vulnerable to retraining and reeducation.”
The Xinjiang regional government did not respond to faxes requesting comment. Asked whether Xinjiang is targeting religious people and their families, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said “this kind of nonsense is not worth commenting on.”
Beijing has said before that the detention centres are for voluntary job training, and that it does not discriminate based on religion. (AP)