Authorities in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang have handed down jail terms to alleged human traffickers for helping people cross the border and illegally leave China, official media reported.
Forty-five people were tried in 10 separate cases in parts of the region near the border with neighboring countries, including Yili (in Chinese, Ili) prefecture, Aksu, Hotan, Kashgar and Karamay, the English-language China Daily said.
It said 18 people, including trafficking gang leaders Wei Hai and Chen Qianggui, had been given sentences ranging from seven years to life imprisonment for helping more than 300 people enter Vietnam.
In the Silk Road city of Kashgar, five people were handed jail terms of eight to 10 years after being found on the border with neighboring Afghanistan and Tajikistan, it said.
According to the paper, the group had been on their way to join the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which China lists as a terrorist organization, and the Taliban.
“The group often gathered together to read books on religious extremism, watch videos featuring violent terrorism, and conspire to migrate to other countries to join jihad,” it quoted court documents as saying.
One of the group, Abdulwast Jumar, was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, it said.
“After secretly planning to go abroad many times to carry out jihad, they gave two human smugglers from Xinjiang 140,000 yuan to be smuggled abroad,” it said.
Under daily threat
China has been keen to portray the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur population as potential terrorists after a wave of violent attacks following deadly ethnic riots in the regional capital, Urumqi, in July 2009.
But many Uyghurs who leave China illegally say they are fleeing systematic persecution by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which puts strong diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries to return Uyghurs to China rather than treat them as refugees.
“I know that the main reason [Uyghurs] escape across the border is to stay out of jail,'” rights activist Hu Jun, who spent many years in the region, told RFA.
“If they stay here, they are under threat every minute of every day,” he said.
“The Chinese Communist Party regime doesn’t care whether its citizens live or die, and they have little respect for life, and often kill in an extremely brutal manner,” Hu said.
“We should really be asking first of all who the terrorists are, because this evil regime is the root of the terrorism.”
“If your life was under threat every day, then wouldn’t you want to leave just to stay alive?” he asked.
No legal way out
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress exile group, agreed.
“By handing out such heavy jail terms, they are trying to pass the buck politically for illegal border crossings,” he said.
Sichuan-based Uyghur rights activist Pu Fei said that a major factor driving illegal border crossings by ethnic minorities in China is a lack of legal channels allowing them to leave the country.
“It’s not that people are determined to cross the border illegally,” Pu said. “It’s rather that the government has closed off all the legal channels for them to do so, making it the only way to get out.”
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