Xinjiang Authorities Are Retroactively Applying Laws to Prosecute Religious Leaders as Criminals

A Leaked Court Verdict Details the Logic Behind One Cleric’s Prosecution and 17-Year Sentence

Sholpan Amirkhan and her aunt gasped when the guards carried her brother-in-law Nurlan Pioner into the Jimunai County People’s Court, on the border with Kazakhstan in China’s western region of Xinjiang. He was gaunt, and a fetid smell followed him. When she shouted his name, she did not see any recognition on his face. He trembled, barely able to maintain a sitting posture as the guards settled him into the seat in the defendant’s cage.

Here was a man that everyone in Amirkhan’s community adored and admired, a vital and eloquent religious leader wrecked by 14 months in detention. He was a kind of living Quran, giving voice to the sacred Arabic words that most in his Kazakh community couldn’t read. He was a molla, a religious scholar and cleric, who had studied how to recite Islamic texts in Arabic and how to conduct religious rituals in an official Chinese state-run Islamic training center. He conducted marriages, funerals, and circumcisions, pulling families together, the elderly into the afterlife, the young into the world. Their relationships to each other and to their ancestors flowed through him. And now, his limbs paralyzed, he sat in his own urine in the courtroom.

Pioner had just turned 50. Before public security officials took him into custody on June 10, 2017, as part of China’s ongoing crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, he had been perfectly healthy, an active village representative of the Jimunai County People’s Congress. His status as a state-appointed community leader, however, did not stop the three judges, all ethnic Kazakhs, from describing him as a criminal who had led members of the Kazakh community into extremism. When the proceedings were over, Amirkhan and her aunt leaned on each other as they walked out of the courthouse. Amirkhan said she whispered to her aunt, “it would be better if they just killed him.”

On August 31, 2018, almost a month after Amirkhan had seen Pioner at his bail hearing, the court sentenced him to 17 years in prison on three separate counts: gathering a crowd to disturb social order, “using extremism to undermine law enforcement,” and “illegal possession of items propagating extremism and terrorism.” The court gave Pioner’s family a written copy of the official verdict soon after his sentencing. Amirkhan smuggled it across the Kazakhstan-China border when she managed to flee the region in 2018. It provides a rare glimpse into the mechanisms of power guiding the now years-long campaign of repression in Xinjiang. Since the crackdown began in 2017, court authorities have deemed verdicts and other case documents related to social stability “not appropriate” to make publicly available.

Pioner’s verdict is one of the most detailed official government accounts available of the way routine Islamic practice has been criminalized across Xinjiang. His case shows how prosecutors and judges reimagine the past activities of Muslim communities, once accepted by the state, as the behavior of “evil gangs.” The verdict presents evidence against Pioner and a Uyghur bookseller named Tokhti Silam, who the prosecutors say together led dozens of people in the community to practice extremism. It describes in granular detail activities labeled instances of extremism, books that foster extremist thought, how homes and devices were searched for extremist content, even who drove in which cars to religious events and the student status of young people who illegally fasted during Ramadan.

Most importantly, it shows in explicit detail how “crimes” committed before they were deemed illegal have been retroactively prosecuted. As the legal state-appointed defenders for Silam state in the verdict, “Judging from the year and a month of the criminal charges, all the crimes committed by the defendant occurred between 1994 and 1995 and between 2011 and 2015. At that time, the relevant laws and regulations had not yet been promulgated, and legal publicity work had not yet been implemented. Therefore, during this period there was a widespread lack of awareness of legal responsibilities in society. Every legal provision related to this case was announced and implemented after 2015.”

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Since the start of the reeducation campaign in 2017, approximately a tenth of all adult Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang have been sent to various forms of detention. This began with internment camps and pre-trial detention, but since 2018 has increasingly shifted toward mass imprisonment.

According to data released by the national and Xinjiang prosecutors’ offices, or “procuratorates,” more than 615,000 people have been formally prosecuted in Xinjiang since 2017, the year the reeducation campaign began. From 2014 through 2016, total prosecutions in Xinjiang averaged about 41,700 per year. In 2017, Xinjiang authorities prosecuted 220,000 individuals, representing a 437 percent jump over the year before. (Though sentencing figures are not readily available, historically, more than 99 percent of individuals prosecuted in China are convicted.) That same year, China prosecuted a total of 1,450,000 people nationally—meaning that Xinjiang, a region with merely 1.8 percent of the national population, comprised 15 percent of all prosecutions in the country. Prosecutions declined in subsequent years (almost certainly due to the large number of people already detained and the corresponding chill cast over the rest of society, rather than an easing of prosecutorial zeal). But even so, from 2017 to the end of 2022, 6 percent of all prosecutions in China took place in Xinjiang.

The shift in the role of the Xinjiang court system is apparent in statements from state procuratorates, that began to appear in 2017. A judge named Hasyati Muhetas from Jimunai, Pioner’s home county, wrote, “While punishing a very small number, we must unite to educate and strive to save the majority, while maximally protecting the basic rights of citizens from terrorism and religious extremism.” In order to do this, the judge added, the court must be firm in normalizing “prevention,” the “de-radicalization” measures which central Party leadership had mandated.

Prosecutors in Pioner’s home county also noted their embrace of the political campaign that targeted “gangs of evil.” In the region, they trained government employees to “walk into the village and enter homes” without warning in order to unearth evidence of “criminal” activity. In 2017, this campaign led to a mass confiscation of “illegal propaganda materials” from the homes of villagers who had been influenced by the “three Illegals” of “illegal religious activities, illegal religious materials, and spreading illegal religious networks.”

Prosecutors portrayed what had once been routine cultural and religious activity as an Islamist plot bent on the destruction of Chinese society.

In 2020, one prosecutor wrote that the “three forces” of extremism, separatism, and terrorism had infiltrated the community by “tampering with religious doctrines.” This in turn had resulted in a “fanaticization of their beliefs,” such that people no longer “practice religion itself, but instead perpetrate the serious crimes of violence and terror.”

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In 2015, I witnessed what was then a routine social event: a Muslim wedding conducted according to Uyghur tradition. Young men from villages in southern Xinjiang were crowded shoulder to shoulder in the carpeted room of a banquet hall. They had their best shirts on; some had bought suits for the occasion. As an ethnographer living in Ürümchi, I was the only non-Uyghur in the room. A molla addressed the young men around me, speaking of the way Islam revealed truth about the world and banished ignorance and superstition. The molla then conducted a nikah ceremony for the couple who had legally applied for a state-issued marriage license, offering a Quranic blessing in Arabic on their future life together. Grins appeared on the faces of the young men around me; it was time for the food, the music, the dancing.

By 2017, such an event would likely be deemed an instance of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” I, and all of the young men around me, were, according to the coming prosecutorial campaign, guilty of having received illegal religious knowledge. Simply attending the event would have been enough for us to later be deemed untrustworthy and in need of reeducation. For the molla, a state-appointed religious figure, that 20-minute sermon and Quranic recitation could result in a five year prison sentence.

In his research on nikah ceremonies in Kashgar in 2013, before the mass detention campaign began, the anthropologist Rune Steenberg showed that messages from state-appointed mollas and imams as part of weddings were a common phenomenon in Uyghur society. During the summer months in particular—the “marriage season”—many Uyghurs attended a wedding in the home of a local community member every weekend. Since the Maoist period, and centuries before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, these semi-public events outside of the mosque have been important spaces for the transmission of Islamic tradition.

Prior to 2014, in some areas, Uyghurs and Kazakhs who had become more pious in their Islamic practice sometimes omitted the music and dancing that accompanied most weddings, instead emphasizing the nikah marriage ceremony and admonition from the molla himself. In some cases, people attended particular weddings because of the renown of the molla who had been invited to speak. These more charismatic mollas are the people state police documents would later refer to as “wild imams” and, at times, as ringleaders of extremist gangs.

In 2015, these ceremonies were normal, or at worst, in the gray zone of activities in China that were officially disapproved of but still routine. The United Front of the Xinjiang Communist Party Committee published a list of “75 Signs of Extremism” in 2014 that included traveling across counties to attend religious events and weddings without music and dancing, but no one I met at the time considered attending or conducting such an event to be a criminal offense. People generally believed that these events might result in an imam or molla being given a warning, yet already some were being detained.

In 2017, thousands upon thousands of Uyghurs and Kazakhs were detained for having participated in past ceremonies. In a 2021 survey of available data, the researcher Peter Irwin showed that a minimum of approximately 1,000 imams and mollas had been detained since 2014. In a dataset of internal police documents from Ürümchi that I have examined as part of an Intercept investigation, hundreds more religious figures are listed as detained. Having attended such gatherings is also cited as a primary reason for detention among non-leaders. Out of a sample of more than 45,000 detentions assessed by researcher Gene Bunin, state documents explicitly list religious activity, or other euphemisms for religious activity such as “disturbing social order” or “extremism,” as the reason for detention more than 50 percent of the time.

One of the key charges against Pioner was that he had led nikah ceremonies for at least 39 couples. In 13 cases, the verdict declares, the couples underwent the religious ceremony before receiving their state marriage license. In one case, a couple was first married and then divorced by Pioner, without state approval. All of this, the prosecution argued, was clear proof that Pioner was guilty of “obstructing law enforcement by means of extremism.”

In addition, because he had provided religious instruction on 17 different occasions, the prosecutors argued that he was guilty of disturbing social order. He was also accused of teaching students and women to recite parts of the Quran and to fast during Ramadan. For instance, in 2013 and 2014 during the Night of Power, or Night of Qadr, one of the most important evenings during the Ramadan fast, he allegedly led women in prayer. Amirkhan said he did this because, as in most Kazakh and Uyghur communities, women were excluded from formally attending the mosque due to gender prohibitions. “This is why they asked him to do this,” she said, “and he agreed because he believed that women should also be able to practice our traditions.”

As the ethnomusicologist Rachel Harris shows, in some communities women are led by female religious leaders known as büwi, but in their absence male community leaders are sometimes asked to take on this role.

Leading women in the Night of Power, Pioner would have helped them remain in a constant state of prayerful attention throughout the night, reading the Quran, making prayers of invocation on their behalf, repeating prayers according to strings of prayer beads, on a night when it is believed prayers are amplified a thousand-fold.

Darren Byler

Empty book shelves at the Xinhua bookstore in Ürümchi, April 2018.

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In 2017, as judges and prosecutors began to work with the Public Security Bureau and Ministry of Civil Affairs to seize “illegal propaganda” from people’s homes, they confiscated 112 books in Nurlan Pioner’s possession, which he had previously stored in a neighbor’s home. Among these books, they deemed 55 to be illegal texts.1

In 2015, the second floor of the Xinhua Bookstore on Yan’an Road in downtown Ürümchi was nearly always full of young people perched on the lowest level book shelves poring over the latest Uyghur historical novel or travelogue, such as Eset Sulayman’s travels to Europe in the 1990s. Many of these young people, the children of migrants to the city or farmers in the countryside, could not afford the three or four dollars the books cost, and so they treated the bookstore as a library, browsing without buying. In the big state-run store, the clerks left them alone, letting them read for hours at a time under the dingy fluorescent lights.

Many Uyghurs I spoke with while doing fieldwork in Xinjiang in 2015 said that they liked to read because it filled their imagination with other times and places. They often did not fully understand what life was like in 1960s Egypt or 1990s Europe, but it gave them something to talk about and, for some, offered a promise of a life that was different from the one they knew. None of them supposed that nearly all of the books they were reading—those explicitly about religion and those that touched on aspects of Uyghur culture or foreign history—would later be deemed illegal.

As the historian Rian Thum has shown, Uyghur-authored non-Chinese texts and oral storytelling are how Uyghurs have made sense of themselves and their own history for centuries. Historical tales of the bringers of Islam and the shrines where they are buried form a sacred landscape throughout the region. Novels about more recent history that present Uyghurs as heroic figures in fighting off the Manchus and driving the Chinese Nationalist Party to Taiwan, building the second East Turkestan Republic with the help of the Soviets, and then joining the People’s Republic of China have been read by millions of Uyghurs. For many Uyghurs, books themselves have a sacred quality. They feel as though destroying a book, particularly a book about religion, is an act of desecration. Having books gave one status, but also carried responsibility. The texts needed to be preserved and respected.

As Uyghurs became more interested in their place in the broader Muslim world, they also began to translate texts from the Middle East and Turkey that Hui scholars in Eastern China and Taiwan had translated into Chinese. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, these books, some of which were published by private presses, outside of the state Ministry of Culture publishing houses, were in wide circulation in Uyghur and Kazakh society, particularly in the personal libraries of religious scholars.

Books once held sacred have become dangerous. Sholpan Amirkhan, Pioner’s sister-in-law, told me that after Pioner was taken along with his books, people in her community began purging their households of all objects that could possibly be construed as Islamic. “We did not know which books were considered bad, so we just burned all of our Uyghur and Kazakh books page by page in the stove in our house,” she said. “We were too afraid to throw them away because we worried they could be traced back to us.” Contacts from Southern Xinjiang told me that irrigation canals were clogged with masses of soggy books that villagers threw away in the middle of the night. In his memoir, the Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil describes the way his panicked neighbors dumped religious articles into the sewer in their Ürümchi apartment complex in the middle of the night. They did not trust the local authorities to protect them, so they avoided handing them in in person.

One of the books Pioner possessed that was mentioned in his case was Garden of the Righteous, a collection of hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, translated from Arabic to Uyghur by the Uyghur scholar Muhemmed Salih Hajim and his daughter, Nezire Muhemmed Salih, who had studied Arabic as an international student in Qatar. After it was published through the Xinjiang People’s Publishing House in 2005, for the next decade this collection of hadiths was the standard edition used by nearly all state-sponsored imams and mollas throughout the region. Because the Uyghur translation was censored by the Ministry of Culture and excluded numerous passages the government read as problematic, it was much shorter than the original Arabic. Until Salih Hajim and Nezire Muhemmed Salih were arrested in 2017, likely on charges of “propagating terrorism and extremism, and inciting terrorist activities,” Uyghurs generally did not view this text as politically dangerous. It was only when Salih Hajim, who was 82 at the time of his detention, died less than 40 days after his arrest—one of the first known casualties of the mass internment campaign—that it became widely known that possession of his translation could result in arrest.

Many of the other titles deemed illegal were books that were translated from Chinese into Uyghur. For instance, Quotations from Indian Imams was a very widely known and commonly read book of religious scholarly opinions on family issues, composed of excerpts drawn from leading scholars of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a large Islamic association in India that explicitly denounces terrorism and political violence as anti-Islamic. Another book titled Islamic Education instructed readers how to pray, perform ablutions, and practice their faith.

According to the verdict against Pioner, Islamic Education was deemed extremist by the Xinjiang Press and Publications Review Department in 2005, but according to my interviewees this was not widely known until 2017. Likewise, it was only after the authorities seized Pioner’s Kazakh translation of Quotations from Indian Imams that the Jimunai County Religious Affairs Special Review Committee determined it to be extremist. Hui Muslim contacts elsewhere in China confirmed that they still have the Chinese translations of these books on their bookshelves.

The verdict makes the largest claim regarding a memoir that Pioner translated into Kazakh. It’s not clear exactly which text this is. According to the verdict, the text, which the verdict refers to as Memoir No. 27, makes statements regarding the need to “liberate Israel from the Jewish people,” dictates that women wear modest clothes, and describes when children should begin their Islamic education. One theory put forward by Uyghur contacts who are currently outside of China is that the memoir could be a translation of the prison diaries of the Muslim feminist organizer Zaynab Al-Ghazali, who was imprisoned in Egypt in 1965 for organizing Muslim women to participate in democratic change.

The verdict deemed Pioner’s possession and translation of these texts to constitute the crime of promoting extremism—a crime that carried a five-year sentence. Taken together with the other crimes of disturbing social order and obstructing the function of law through extremism by conducting marriage ceremonies, his resulting sentence was 17 years. The dozens of witnesses named in the verdict have likely also been charged with prison terms or terms in the camps.

As Pioner’s own broken body and dozens of reports from other former detainees make clear, the evidence prosecutors presented at his trial was likely collected at a tremendous cost. While some witnesses may have openly confessed and named others as a way of protecting themselves, many were likely subjected to torture. Many people who have been held in pre-trial detention centers before being transferred to camps were also forced to wear heavy shackles. Bagdat Akin, a Kazakh exchange student, was detained after returning to Xinjiang after studying in Egypt. In his handwritten sentencing appeal, given to me by his relative, he describes interrogators beating detainees, depriving them of sleep, bringing their relatives to nearby cells and torturing them, and forcing detainees to listen to their screams. The screams of people in interrogation is something that former detainees I have interviewed mention over and over. Either they themselves were subject to such torture or they heard others scream.

Pioner’s verdict shows that in the rhetoric of the court, the “evil” of “criminal gangs” or religious Kazakhs and Uyghurs has been hiding in plain sight in the books, published by state presses, that had been on the shelves across the region for decades.

As the campaign in Xinjiang shifts from detention camps to formal imprisonment, Xinjiang society appears to be shifting to a new kind of normalcy. In some locations, obvious forms of surveillance are disappearing, though mosque entrances are still equipped with border control technologies that scan people’s faces and phones. Although a diminishment of state terror as new detention numbers fall is undoubtedly a positive sign, the new normal is not the same as what existed before. While Uyghur- and Kazakh-language books are reappearing on bookshelves at the Xinhua Bookstore, the new books are nearly all simply translations of Chinese texts. Community leaders have not been restored to their old positions of authority. Weddings and funerals are now conducted by Party officials.

  1. In the Criminal Verdict of the People’s Court of Jimunai County, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the number of publications deemed illegal is listed as both 55 and 93. ChinaFile was unable to determine what accounts for this discrepancy.