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Beijing ramped up arrests of Uighur Muslims in 2017: report

Chinese military police a rally in Xinjiang province [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 July, 2018

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Twenty-one percent of all arrests in China last year were in Xinjiang province, despite the area making up just 1.5 percent of the country's 1.4 billion.

Chinese authorities ramped up arrests last year in the far-western Xinjiang region, home to a predominately Uighur Muslim population, by more than 730 percent, according to a report released Wednesday. 

Muslims in the region accuse Beijing of religious and cultural repression, but the ruling Communist Party has justified more policing by saying it faces a threat from religious extremism, terrorism and separatism.

Authorities arrested nearly 228,000 people on criminal charges in 2017, according to data compiled from official goernment sources by rights group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). 

That's around 21 percent of all arrests in China last year, the group said, even though the region is home to just 1.5 percent of China's 1.4 billion people. 

Indictments in Xinjiang also increased at a rate "far out of proportion" to its population, amounting to a 422 percent increase year-on-year in 2017, CHRD said. 

The dramatic increase in arrests followed the introduction of draconian new restrictions on religious practices in Xinjiang, including forbidding beards, veils and the distribution of content including songs with Arabic lyrics. 

In 2009, longstanding tension with Beijing led to deadly riots in the regional capital Urumqi. Uighurs have since been tied to mass stabbings and bombings that have left dozens dead across the country. 

Civil unrest and clashes with government forces have also killed hundreds more.

The increase in arrests last year coincides with a turning point in Beijing's approach to the strategic region as the government pushed its plans to foster greater trade with Central Asia and Europe, a programme that puts a premium on security. 

Members of the Uighur diaspora say relatives have been arrested for seemingly innocuous acts such as sending Ramadan greetings to friends or downloading popular music.

Authorities are also believed to have detained hundreds of thousands of Muslims in a secretive network of extra-judicial political re-education centres, where inmates are given language and ideological training and forced to participate in military-style drills. 

The local government pumped more than $9 billion into security spending in 2017, nearly double the year before, according to AFP.

In 2016, Chinese authorities reportedly required Xinjiang residents to submit DNA samples, fingerprints and voice records to obtain passports or travel abroad.

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