BEIJING — A court in western China has reduced the sentences of 11 Uighurs convicted of terrorism and endangering state security, including a naturalized Canadian preacher whose life term had been sharply criticized by Ottawa.
The official Xinhua News Agency characterized the sentence reductions for the Uighurs at Xinjiang’s First Prison as a sign that authorities in the restive western region were making progress de-radicalizing Islamist militants and separatists using a softer touch.
The rare move of clemency, announced after the prisoners took courses and repented their crimes last week, comes at a time when the Chinese government is tightening its grip over the region, expanding its security campaign and ordering cultural assimilation projects and religious restrictions that members of the Turkic-speaking Uighur minority have deemed oppressive.
Among the 11 prisoners with reduced terms is Huseyin Celil, a preacher from Ontario whose life sentence in 2007 sparked a diplomatic row between China and Canada. After fleeing China and gaining refugee status in 2000, Celil lived in Canada until he was arrested in Uzbekistan and extradited to China.
China refused to recognize his Canadian citizenship and convicted him of organizing on behalf of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement militant group.
Aside from the reduction of life sentences to fixed terms, four prisoners, including a man convicted of contacting the ETIP and the Taliban to set up training bases in Afghanistan, saw their lengthy prison terms reduced to six months, Xinhua said in a report Monday.
The new duration of Huseyin Celil’s sentence has not been announced, said San Francisco-based activist John Kamm, who has pressed for Celil’s release on behalf of the Canadian government since 2009.
But Kamm lauded the decision, telling The Associated Press on Wednesday that commuting Celil’s sentence represented “a step in the right direction” and should prompt other Xinjiang prisons to consider mass clemency.
The Canadian Embassy in Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress exile group, called the commutations a “political propaganda tool” meant to divert attention from Beijing’s repressive policies.
The long-running Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang has claimed hundreds of lives in recent years despite efforts to pacify and assimilate the region that critics say are exacerbating a cycle of discontent and unrest. China’s “Strike Hard” campaign, which was launched in 2014 in response to an attack on a public market that killed 31 people, will intensify in 2016 with a focus on deploying special forces and technological tools, the Xinjiang region chairman said last month.
William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said the reduced sentences were intended to show “the Communist Party’s supposed benevolence and mercy” amid the broader crackdown.
“This is probably the proverbial ‘carrot’ to the violent ‘Strike Hard’ campaign’s ‘stick,’” Nee said.
He said that without independent or international oversight of such de-radicalization programs, “it will be impossible to judge to what extent they are effective or in line with international human rights laws and standards.”