Trials Continue in Xinjiang, Press Reportedly Warned Against Independent Reporting

January 27, 2010

A court in the far western region of Xinjiang handed down the death penalty to 10 people—5 with a two-year reprieve—and sentenced 12 others to prison terms in late December after finding them guilty of committing crimes during unrest in Xinjiang in July. The court reportedly gave one-day notice of some of the trials, in violation of Chinese law, and warned journalists who attended the trials not to report extensively on the event. The same court tried 13 more people in late January, sentencing 5 to death—1 with a two-year reprieve—and others to prison terms. The late December and January trials follow trials in October and early December also connected to events in July, and the sentences from those trials since have been upheld. The trials have been marked by violations of international standards for due process including judges selected for "political reliability" and curbs on independent legal defense.

Following the forceful police suppression of a demonstration by Uyghurs on July 5 and outbreaks of violence starting that day in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court held trials on December 22 and 23 for 22 people accused of committing crimes in July, according to reports from Chinese and overseas media. The court found the defendants, who were involved in a total of five cases, guilty of crimes including intentional homicide and robbery, sentencing five to death, five to death with a two-year reprieve, eight to life in prison, and four to prison sentences between 12 and 15 years, according to a December 24 report from the Xinjiang Daily (via Bingtuan Net). Based on the names provided in the article, all of the people sentenced appear to be Uyghur. The report noted that seven of the defendants had committed the crimes "after participating in the illegal demonstration," an example of limited acknowledgment by officials that a "demonstration" took place on July 5 in addition to violent activity. Authorities initiated prosecution against the 22 people and 1 other person, involved in a total of six cases, on December 12, according to a Tianshan Net report (via Xinhua's Bingtuan Net, December 14). The Xinjiang Daily article did not discuss the status of the 23 person involved in the sixth case. On January 25, the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court tried 13 more people involved in five cases, sentencing 4 to death, 1 to death with a two-year reprieve, and the remaining defendants to prison terms including life imprisonment, according to a January 26 Xinjiang Daily report (via Xinhua). The January report did not provide detailed information on the trial and listed the names of only six of the defendants, all of whom appeared to be Uyghur. The late December and January trials follow trials in the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in October and early December, also connected to events in July.

A report from an overseas newspaper, The Australian, indicates that authorities attempted to limit information on the late December trials. While the December 24 Xinjiang Daily article said that the trials were open to the public and attended by various spectators including the media, journalists present at one day of the trials, who were cited in a December 23 article from The Australian, said that authorities told them "not to write detailed reports or conduct their own investigations into the murders or the accused," according to a paraphrasing of their remarks. The journalists also said they were notified of the trials less than one day in advance, according to the report. Under Article 151(5) of the PRC Criminal Procedure Law, courts shall announce trials involving public prosecutions three days in advance. The controls over journalists' activities accompany broader measures in the XUAR to curb the free flow of information about events in July by blocking Web sites and limiting Internet access, international phone calls, and text messaging. Authorities announced in late December that they gradually would begin to lift the restrictions. (See, e.g., a December 28 announcement from the XUAR government information office, via Bingtuan Net, December 29, and December 30 China Daily report). As of mid-January, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) found that many Web sites from the XUAR remained inaccessible to users outside the region. A January 18 China Daily article reported that most sites from the region also remained blocked to users there, while authorities had restored limited text messaging and international phone service. While the national state-run media agency Xinhua had provided English-language reports on the earlier trials, English-language reporting on the late December and January trials appears absent from Xinhua and other Chinese media agencies. For overseas reporting on the trials based on information provided by the XUAR government and state-run media, see, e.g., a December 24 New York Times article, December 24 Reuters report, and January 26 Reuters report.

As noted in a previous CECC analysis, trials connected to the July events have been marked by violations of international standards for due process, including judges selected for "political reliability" and curbs on independent legal defense. As in the case of reports on the earlier trials, the December 24 Xinjiang Daily article reported that lawyers hired by the defendants or appointed by the court presented defense arguments at the late December trials. (The report on the January trial did not include information on legal defense.) The information on the late December trials follows news, however, that authorities in the XUAR and elsewhere had restricted lawyers' defense activities and clients' right to have independent counsel, calling into question the nature of the legal defense during the December trials and earlier court hearings. See previous CECC analyses (1, 2) for details. Recent remarks from Rozi Ismail, head of the XUAR High People's Court, underscore politicization in the judiciary and the influence of the high court over lower courts, further calling into question the likelihood of a fair first-instance trial and fair hearing on appeal based on international standards for due process. In his January 14 work report at the XUAR People's Congress, Rozi Ismail said that the high court had issued guiding opinions on cases connected to events in July and strengthened "supervision and guidance" toward lower courts to guarantee the trials took place in an "orderly" way in accordance with law, according to a January 15 Chinese-language Xinhua article. Like other officials, Rozi Ismail connected July events to the "three forces" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism and said courts would continue to "strike hard with maximum pressure" at the "three forces," with crimes from July as the focus. No July-related trials to date, however, have involved terrorism, separatism, or other crimes of endangering state security, according to available information on the trials from Chinese media.

Verdicts from earlier trials in 2009 have been upheld on appeal. The XUAR High People's Court heard appeals in October from the trials held that month and upheld the judgments, as CECC analyses reported (1, 2). In addition, on December 19, the Xinjiang High People's Court heard appeals in open court from eight people in seven cases tried by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in early December, according to a Tianshan Net report (via Bingtuan Net, December 20) and December 21 Xinjiang Daily article (available in PDF of the hardcopy article from Open Source Center, CPP20100106038009, subscription required). Lawyers for the defendants presented defense arguments at the hearings, according to the articles. The Xinjiang High People's Court upheld the lower court's judgments. The court also upheld the judgments for three other people tried in early December, upon reading their case files and questioning the relevant parties, according to the reports.

For additional information, see Section IV—Xinjiang in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.