Uyghurs in China: The Most Heavily Jailed Group in the World

One third of China’s total prison inmates are Uyghurs and Turkic people.

by Ruth Ingram

Muherrem Mettursun, left, 49, was detained in 2021; her 68-year-old mother, Tajinisa Yimin, center, was detained on terrorism-related charges in 2021; and her father, Nuri Mettursun, right, was 67 when he was arrested in 2017. He died five months into a five-and-a-half-year sentence. Photo: Courtesy of Nurmemet Mettursun.

Uyghurs are the most heavily imprisoned people in the world according to alarming figures released by a Uyghur rights group, claiming that at least 1 in 26 of Xinjiang’s non-Han citizens have been incarcerated.

According to the Washington DC-based advocacy group, Uyghur Human Rights Project, (UHRP) 3,814 Turkic people per 100,000 were jailed in Xinjiang between 2017–2022 compared with the figure for China of 80 Han Chinese per 100,000. This dwarfs El Salvador’s hitherto notorious record of imprisoning 1,086 per 100,000 of its citizens.

The UHRP probe into prison numbers in China has shown that despite Uyghurs being only one percent of the total population of the superpower, one third of its total prison population is made up of Turkic peoples scattered throughout the province on its far northwestern flank, roughly four times the size of France.

Ben Carrdus, senior researcher at the UHRP and co-author of the report with Peter Irwin, UHRP Associate Director for Research & Advocacy, told “Bitter Winter” they were “stunned” by the statistics. Sifting through the data “over and over again,” he said they were “almost in disbelief.” The figures add weight to “an ongoing human rights crisis in the Uyghur Region,” he said.

“Even if our estimates are wildly over-stated; even three times the true imprisonment figures, they would still show that the Uyghur Region has the world’s highest rate of imprisonment,” he said.

Turkic people, mostly Uyghurs, of Northwest China’s Xinjiang Region were extrajudicially sentenced in their hundreds of thousands during the brutal crackdowns of 2017, when President Xi Jinping’s “War on Terror” in Xinjiang assumed sinister proportions. Arrests were for the most part on terrorism-related charges.

While more than one and a half million were herded into purpose built so-called Vocational Training Camps; an additional eighty seven percent of the formal prison sentences from 2017 to 2022 were for more than five years, with an average of 9.24 years.

Although the Chinese government no longer publishes yearly prosecution statistics, there is no sign that the overall prison population has dwindled. An analysis of the 2016 to 2024 19,014 cases contained in the Xinjiang Victims Database still indicates an average sentence of 8.5 years.

By 2017 incarcerations had already been underway following the launch of Beijing’s “Strike Hard” campaign against terrorism in 2014, when Uyghurs were rounded up to tackle the “ideological virus” of Turkic Muslims. Since then, around half a million people in Xinjiang have been prosecuted through the criminal courts and there is no sign of numbers abating.

“Overall prison population today likely remains as high as it was during the peak of the strike hard campaign,” they say. “Given the high prosecution numbers for 2018 and 2019 amid the continuing strike hard climate, it is reasonable to assume that sentencing patterns in those years remained every bit as harsh as they were in 2017.”

High though the figures are, Chinese state-published data could just be the tip of the iceberg claims Carrdus. The true numbers could be much higher.

“We need to stress that these figures are for formal imprisonment only. They don’t include people who may still be effectively imprisoned in the camps or held indefinitely in pre-trial detention.” “And they don’t include people sentenced to prison by the Bingtuan’s courts (the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, originally set up seventy years ago to guard the Western frontiers, which has since mutated over time to create an “environment of extraordinary terror and oppression”). The true numbers are therefore likely to be astronomical,” he said.

Leaked documents hacked from Xinjiang police computers in 2022 and released to the Associated Press show that 830,000 mostly Uyghurs from Southern Xinjiang were detained during the mass roundups on charges related to terrorism, separatism, or religious extremism. Examples of their “crimes” were typically the style of their clothes, the shape of their beard, the number of their children, reading and studying the Quran or praying.

Known as the Xinjiang Police Files they blew the whistle on police activities that saw “offenders” from the age of 14 to 90 sentenced without formal trial or legal representation, often for historical “crimes” committed when they were minors, such as studying in Turkey, or learning to read the Quran.

Carrdus’ report notes that the dramatic number and length of prison sentences in the Uyghur region “should not be interpreted as a reflection of increased criminality among Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.” Citing a recent UHRP report on female religious figures in East Turkestan (the preferred term for Xinjiang used by exiled Uyghurs), it stresses a “remarkable, indeed shocking, lack of proportionality between crime and sentence,” when Uyghur cases go through the Chinese courts.

Specific case studies from the UHRP report included that of Ezizgul Memet who studied the Quran with her mother for three days in 1976 when she was five or six years old, for which she was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017.

Tursungul Emet did the same in 1974 and was sentenced to 11 years. Aytial Rozi studied the Quran and taught it to a group of women between 2009 and 2011, for which she was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Of the almost 80,000 recorded in the Xinjiang Victims Database, 1,481 imprisoned Uyghurs are aged 55 years or older; 15 are over 70 and three over 90. These elderly Uyghurs have been jailed, forced to learn Chinese, and subjected to hours, weeks, and months of CCP propaganda. They are charged with “participating in terrorist organizations” and are being held to be purged of “ideological viruses.”

Nurmemet Mettursun, whose 67-year-old father died five months into a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence imposed in 2017, spoke to “Bitter Winter” from his exiled home in Türkiye. Shattered by the death of his father, the arrest and disappearance of his 68-year-old mother in 2021 was also playing on his mind. Inquiries made to the United Nations last year by the Istanbul-based Chinese Concentration Camp Victims Group as to her whereabouts revealed that she had been “criminally detained on suspicion of possessing items promoting extremism and terrorism” on July 25, 2021. (During the clampdown, kitchen knives were considered terrorist tools, confiscated, and cataloged) His 49-year-old sister Muherrem Mettursun was also detained at the same time, but both their cases have gone cold. Meanwhile his wife and two children still in the homeland have disappeared.

He says his medical practice and writing project are all that keep him sane during his sleepless nights and days sunk in deep depression.

“Offenders” are still being rounded up and sentenced to lengthy jail terms for historical offenses. Investigations by Radio Free Asia have probed the recent arrest of three women from Zulkum Village in the Makit county of Southern Xinjiang’s Kashgar. Having been released from 10-year sentences imposed in 2014, they were re-sentenced on June 11, 2024, to periods of 14–18 years for teaching religion to children and listening to Islamic recordings ten years ago.

The village security director interviewed by RFA is quoted as having said, “There was no mention of extremism, but they were keeping those audio and videos.” “They were accused of having hatred towards Han Chinese people, but there was no evidence.”

10 years in prison had not been enough, said the official, “so they were taken away for further education,” he said.

Carrdus criticized the Communist Party’s “absurdly upbeat propaganda about the overall status and welfare of Uyghurs and other Turkic people in the region.”

“You can’t claim Uyghurs are the ‘happiest Muslims in the world’ when your own stats reveal that Uyghurs are the most-imprisoned people in the world.”

Beijing typically brushes aside any concerns and defends its actions by claiming China is a country ruled by law, said Carrdus. “But the law in China is only what the Party wants it to be and being ‘the law’ doesn’t mean there’s justice. These sentences, these imprisonment statistics, they’re the Party’s choice and the Party’s will, and they are yet more evidence of the ongoing human rights crisis in the Uyghur Region.”