In a new 92-page report, Amnesty International documents a pattern of gross violations of human rights in the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang (XUAR), one of the five autonomous regions of the People's Republic of China (RPC), which borders several Central Asian countries.

These violations include arbitrary and summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair political trials. The main victims of these abuses are the Uighurs, the majority ethnic group among the predominantly Muslim local population in the region.

Thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained in the XUAR over the past few years and arbitrary arrests continue. Thousands of political prisoners, arrested at various times during the 1990s, are reported to remain imprisoned, some having been sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials, others still detained without charge or trial after months or years in jail. Many of those detained are reported to have been tortured, some with particularly cruel methods which, to Amnesty International's knowledge, are not being used elsewhere in the PRC. Scores of Uighur political prisoners have been sentenced to death and executed in the past two years. Others are alleged to have been killed by the security forces in circumstances which appear to constitute extra-judicial executions.

These gross violations of human rights are occurring amidst growing ethnic unrest. With a massive influx of ethnic Chinese (or Han) in the XUAR since 1949, the indigenous population has felt increasingly marginalised in what they regard as their ancestral land. Ethnic discontent has also been fuelled by government policies, unemployment, discrimination, unequal economic opportunities, and curbs on fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion.

Over the past ten years the local ethnic population has witnessed a steady erosion of its social, economic and cultural rights. Economic development in the region has largely bypassed the local ethnic population and benefited mainly Han Chinese. Racial discrimination is reported to be common and unemployment is high among Uighurs. Despite that, the influx of Han migrant workers has considerably increased in recent years.

These trends have exacerbated long-standing ethnic tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the region, and contributed to the escalation of violence. A growing number of violent incidents have been reported in the region in recent years, including attacks on government officials and offices, and the planting and detonation of bombs. Some of these incidents have been carried out by underground opposition groups seeking independence from China.

Aspirations towards independence have their roots in both the distant past and recent history. During the 1930s and 1940s, two independent Republics of Eastern Turkestan were formed successively in Kashgar (1933) and Ili (1944) as attempts to resist Chinese rule. Both republics were short-lived, but they have continued to inspire nationalist opposition since 1949, particularly among the Uighurs. Over the years, various opposition groups militating for Eastern Turkestan's independence were formed clandestinely in the XUAR - some reportedly supported by exiled nationalist groups established among the Uighur diaspora in various countries. Some of these groups have resorted to violence.

Since 1990, the Chinese authorities' fears of organised political opposition in the XUAR appear to have been heightened by the emergence of independent Central Asian states which followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the rise of lslamic movements as well as protracted conflicts in other neighbouring countries. This has led to a reversal of the relatively liberal policies implemented in the region during the 1980s, notably concerning religion.

While the "open door" policy led to a religious revival in the XUAR during the 1980s, since 1990 the government has reverted to restrictive policies amidst fears that lslam might provide a rallying point for ethnic nationalism and that lslamic movements abroad might inspire young Uighurs. Many mosques and Koranic schools have been closed down in the region and religious leaders who are deemed to be too independent or "subversive" have been dismissed or arrested. Muslims working in government offices and other official institutions are prohibited from practising their religion, failing which they lose their jobs.

In the past few years, the Chinese government has responded with harsh repression to growing unrest in the region, blaming it on a "small number" of "separatists", "terrorists" and "religious extremists" accused of having links with "foreign hostile forces" whose aim is to "split the motherland". Since 1996, the government has launched an extensive campaign against "ethnic separatists", imposing new restrictions on religious and cultural rights, and resorting increasingly to executions, show trials and arbitrary detention to silence real and suspected opponents.

Amnesty International recognises the state's duty to take the measures necessary to maintain law and order, but even in situations of internal strife, this must be exercised within the limits set by international human rights law. Killings by members of armed opposition groups can never provide justification for government forces to deliberately kill defenceless people or torture prisoners in police custody.

Furthermore, the official reports about "separatists and terrorists" in the XUAR obscure a more complex reality in which many people who are not involved in violence have become victims of human rights violations. Over the years, Uighurs' attempts to air their views or grievances and peacefully exercise their most fundamental human rights have been met with repression.

Amnesty International is calling on the Chinese government to establish a special commission to investigate human rights violations and economic, social and cultural needs in the region, to suggest remedial measures and provide a forum for individuals and groups to voice their grievances. It is also calling on the authorities to take immediate measures to stop the gross violations of human rights occurring in the region.

Arbitrary detention and imprisonment

Thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained in the XUAR over the past few years. Suspected Uighur "separatists", nationalist sympathisers and people taking part in Koranic classes or religious groups have been particularly targeted. Repression increased in 1997 following protests by Uighurs on 5 and 6 February that year in the city of Gulja (Yining), located near the border with Kazakstan in the west of the XUAR. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people are believed to have been detained in Gulja during the two weeks which followed the protests. Many of them were tortured. Some were released after being held without charge for weeks or months. Others have remained in detention. Arbitrary arrests have continued since then, both in Gulja and elsewhere in the region.

One of those detained for involvement in the February 97 protests in Gulja is Abdulhelil, a 28 year-old businessman in the city, married with three children. He was arrested on 5 February 1997 for taking part in a peaceful demonstration calling for religious freedom and equal treatment for Uighurs. Abdulhelil was the main leader of the "meshreps", a traditional form of social gathering revived by members of the Uighur community in Gulja in 1994 in order to tackle social problems, particularly drug addiction which had become widespread among unemployed young Uighurs. The meetings of the meshreps were tolerated by the authorities for a few months. They were popular and rapidly spread to other areas. As the number of participants grew, however, the authorities banned the meshreps in 1995. Abdulhelil was detained for a short period at that time. Following his re-arrest on 5 February 1997, he was reportedly severely tortured in detention. As of late 1998, his family had not received any official notification about the charges against him or his place of detention. He is not known to have been charged or tried. Amnesty International believes that Abdulhelil is arbitrarily detained for the peaceful exercise of his fundamental human rights, in violation of international standards, and that he should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Among many others arbitrarily imprisoned in the XUAR is Abidjan Obulkasim, one of four students from Kashgar who were arrested in early 1995 and subsequently sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 15 years for having discussed political issues among themselves; They were aged in their late teens or early 20s at the time of their arrest. Abidjan Obulkasim, now aged about 23, was a student at the Physics Department of the Kashgar Teacher's Training College at the time of his arrest. In mid-1995, he was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment after being convicted of forming a "counter-revolutionary group" and "planning" to engage in "separatist" activities. The sentence against him was reportedly increased by one year in appeal.

Political prisoners and unfair trials

Thousands of political prisoners are reported to be imprisoned in the XUAR. In its report, Amnesty International documents the cases of about 200 political prisoners arrested during the 1990s who are believed to be still detained or imprisoned.

In the XUAR, as elsewhere in the PRC, political trials are a mere formality. The verdict is usually pre-determined and decided by or in consultation with the political authorities. Political prisoners are often held incommunicado for months or even years before they are tried, and torture is reported to be systematic. Few defendants have access to lawyers. According to some sources, some defendants in the XUAR are not given a formal trial hearing but are simply informed of their sentences after the court's adjudication committee deliberates on the case among themselves and decides on the verdict on the basis of files prepared by the police and procuracy.

Many political prisoners have been sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials. Some were convicted of politically-motivated crimes which usually involved the advocacy or the use of violence. In many cases, they were tried behind closed doors, often without defence lawyers. Some of them were taken to "public sentencing rallies" - show trials attended by hundreds or thousands of people - during which their sentences were announced. In all cases, the prisoners are reported to have been tortured to force them to give incriminating information or to sign "confessions". Amnesty International is concerned that they were convicted and sentenced after unfair trials and that some of them may be prisoners of conscience held for the peaceful exercise of fundamental human rights.

One example is Abdukiram Abduveli, a 42 year-old Uighur from Kucha county in Aksu district, who was sentenced in May 1993 to 12 years' imprisonment and four years' deprivation of political rights on political charges. The court verdict against him by the Urumqi city Intermediate People's Court shows that Abdukiram Abduveli did not have an open trial and no lawyer to represent him. Abduveli was found guilty of "organising a counter-revolutionary group" for having allegedly planned with others in October 1990 to form a political party called the "Islamic Reformist Party". Abduveli was arrested on 17 November 1990 before the group had undertaken any activities. He was also accused of "carrying out counter-revolutionary propaganda and agitation" for taking part in religious activities to explain the Koran, during which he allegedly advocated violence. He was initially charged (on 24 July 1991 - eight months after he was taken into police custody) with the second charge only. The charge of "organising a counter-revolutionary group" was therefore added later. The addition of this second charge at a late stage raises strong doubts as to the nature of the evidence against him both on this count and on the other charge. Abdukiram Abduveli's current place of detention is not known.


Under international human rights law, the right not to be tortured can never be derogated from, even "in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation". This right applies whoever the detainee may be and whatever the crimes he or she is suspected of having committed.

Although Chinese law explicitly prohibits "torture to extract confessions", and China has been a party to the UN Convention against Torture since 1988, torture remains widespread in the PRC. The XUAR is no exception. The reports received by Amnesty International from many sources indicate that torture and ill-treatment of prisoners are endemic in the region.

Some prisoners are reported to have died in prison due to torture or a combination of ill-treatment and neglect. This was the case with Nyzamidin Yusayin, a 70 year-old scholar from Urumqi and former journalist for the official newspaper Xinjiang Daily, who reportedly died in police custody due to torture on 7 April 1998.

Particularly disturbing allegations have been made about the brutal treatment of people held in Gulja after the February 97 protests there. Some reportedly had to have their feet amputated, suffering severe frostbites after being hosed with icy cold water by the security forces. Severe torture of suspected political opponents is reported to have continued in that area since then. According to some sources, the extent of torture is such that many political detainees have been brought to court barely conscious and unable to walk.

Various sources had also reported the use in the XUAR of some particularly cruel forms of torture which, to Amnesty International's knowledge, are not being used elsewhere in the PRC. This includes the insertion of horse hair into the penis, or a special wire with small spikes which fold flat when inserted into the penis but extend when the wire is pulled out. According to former political prisoners, such methods of sexual torture have been used in the XUAR for many years.

While torture is reported to be widespread across the XUAR, some places of detention are particularly notorious for the extent of torture and harsh treatment inflicted on prisoners. This is notably the case at Liudaowan jail in Urumqi where many political prisoners are held.

Testimonies and cases of torture are cited in the Amnesty International report. While Amnesty International is not in a position to verify the specific allegations made in individual testimonies and reports, it believes that the number and consistency of these allegations suggest a pattern which warrants immediate action by the authorities, including thorough and impartial investigations of all reports and complaints of torture.

The authorities appear to have taken no action to curb torture in the region or to bring alleged perpetrators of torture to justice. There is a striking absence of official reports about prosecutions for torture in the XUAR. Amnesty International has not come across any such report in the regional media over the past two years. This contrasts sharply with the Chinese provinces, where local newspapers and other media have often reported cases in which police officials have been prosecuted for torture. The absence of such reports in the XUAR suggests that the authorities either ignore or cover up the widespread practice of torture in the region, or may even sanction its use in the context of repression.

Arbitrary and summary executions

The XUAR is the only region of the People's Republic of China where political prisoners are known to have been executed in recent years. As elsewhere in the PRC, the death penalty is also applicable for a very wide range of offences, including many non violent offences such as theft, economic and drug related crime.

Since January 1997, Amnesty international has recorded at least 210 death sentences in the region, of which 190 were executed shortly after sentencing - the real figures are believed to be higher. Almost two thirds of the cases recorded were publicly reported by Chinese official sources. The vast majority of those sentenced to death and executed were Uighurs.

These figures indicate that the ratio of death sentences to the population is several times higher in the XUAR than elsewhere in China. The execution rate vis a vis the number of death sentences appears also to be higher.

Most of those sentenced to death and executed in the region are political prisoners. They have been accused of offences related to clandestine opposition activities, street protests, violent clashes with the security forces, or terrorist incidents. Some of these cases have been publicly reported by the Chinese authorities, but others have not. When they are reported, official sources merely list the accusations against the defendants and do not provide any detail about the evidence against them or the trial proceedings.

Political prisoners charged with such offences are often tried in secret, under procedures which are reported to be summary. Trials are a mere formality, with the verdict usually decided by the authorities before the trial. Convictions are frequently based on forced confessions and statements extracted under torture. The families are often excluded from the trials and few defendants are known to have had the assistance of defence lawyers. Defendants who appeal against the verdict invariably see their appeal rejected.

In many cases, the authorities have staged "public sentencing rallies" to publicly "pronounce" sentences imposed on alleged offenders. The defendants taken to such rallies have usually been tried behind closed doors beforehand, though in some cases it is unclear whether they have actually gone through any prior formal trial process. Official reports about such rallies show that the judicial process is a mere formality tailored for the purpose of these show trials. They also usually make clear that justice is dictated by political considerations.

Defendants who are taken to public sentencing rallies are made to stand facing the audience with their hands tied behind their back and wearing a placard on their chest, on which their name and crime are written. They are usually forced to keep their head bowed by soldiers escorting them. In some cases, their feet are also chained and their mouth is gagged with a rope or wire tied tightly at their back to prevent them from speaking or shouting. These practices violate international standards on the treatment of prisoners, by which China has agreed to abide, and unnecessarily add to the inherent cruelty of the death penalty. Prisoners sentenced to death at such rallies are invariably executed immediately after the rallies.

There have been reports that some prisoners have been executed in public, notably in villages of Ili Prefecture in the west of the XUAR. It has also been reported that the authorities have refused to return the bodies of some executed prisoners to their family, thus preventing the families from burying their dead according to Muslim customs. This increases concern about reports that the prisoners were tortured to extract forced confessions. Often, the families of those sentenced to death have not been informed until the last minute about the fate of their imprisoned relatives. For example, the parents of 23 year-old Jappar Talet, one of those executed after a sentencing rally in Gulja on 22 July 1997, were reportedly informed of his execution just a few hours before it was carried out. They had no prior warning of what awaited their son. After his execution, they requested his body in order to give him a proper burial, but the authorities refused to return the body.

Amnesty International is also concerned about reports alleging that civilians and, in some cases, prisoners have been killed by the security forces or prison guards in the XUAR in circumstances which appear to constitute extra-judicial executions: deliberate and arbitrary killings by government forces acting outside the limits of the law. The Amnesty International reports describes incidents in which such killings allegedly occured. International law provides that lethal force should only be used when absolutely necessary and in direct proportion to the legitimate objective it is intended to achieve.

Amnesty International is calling on the Chinese government to take immediate measures to curb the gross violations of human rights occuring in the region, in particular executions and torture. These measures are described in the concluding section of the report. Amnesty International is also calling on the government to institute an impartial commission of enquiry to investigate reports of human rights violations in the region and provide a forum for individuals and groups to voice their grievances. Amnesty International believes this should be accompanied by a comprehensive assessment of the needs in education, health and the economic disparities in the region, particularly given China's signature of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1997.


(Al Index: ASA 17/18/99) issued by Amnesty International on 20 April 1999. Anyone wishing further details or to take action on this issue should consult the full document.