China has detained or imprisoned more than 600 Uyghur imams and other religious figures since 2014 as part of the country's ongoing crackdown on the Xinjiang region, according to data compiled by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and shared with BBC News.
The group examined the cases of 1,046 clerics who were at some point detained by China since 2014, but found it difficult to obtain corroborating evidence in most cases due to the government's strict control over data in Xinjiang. Corroborating evidence was available in 630 cases, and 304 of those clerics were sent to prison instead of the country's 're-education" camps that have been used to detain other Uyghurs.
Peter Irwin, the Uyghur Human Rights Project's senior program officer, told the BBC the imams have been targeted "because of their ability to bring people together in the community."
He added, "The state has been carefully dealing with imams for a long time because it knows the influence they have. The detentions and imprisonments of the past few years are just the culmination of three decades of repression designed to constrict Uyghur culture and religion."
Court documents and testimony about the sentence length for the clerics show 96% were given at least five years in prison, while 26% were sentenced to 20 years or more, which includes 14 life sentences.
The report shows, of these 630 clerics, 18 died in detention or shortly after their release. Most of the detained clerics were accused of vague charges such as "gathering a crowd to disturb social order," "inciting separatism," and "propagating extremism."
Donald Clarke, a George Washington University professor and specialist in Chinese law, told the BBC that China was filing extremism charges on a "flimsy legal basis" in the region for "offenses that shouldn't even qualify as offenses."
He added, "Setting to one side for a moment whether you accept 'propagating extremism' as a valid charge, the question is do the facts make a plausible case for that charge? And the alleged offenses we have seen — things like having a beard, not drinking, or traveling abroad — suggest they don't."
A Chinese government spokesperson told the BBC that Xinjiang "enjoys unprecedented freedom of religious belief," adding, "Xinjiang's 'de-radicalization' effort has effectively contained the spread of religious extremism and made a great contribution to global 'de-radicalization' efforts."
The country previously pushed back on a meeting the United Nations was set to hold Wednesday concerning the human rights of Uyghur Muslims, with China's U.N. mission saying in a statement: "The current situation in Xinjiang is at its best in history with stability, rapid economic development and harmonious co-existence among people of all ethnic groups. The U.S. and other co-sponsors are obsessed with fabricating lies and plotting to use Xinjiang-related issues to contain China and create [a] mess in China."
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