Police Conduct Raids in Xinjiang a Year After Flag Burning at Mosque

Authorities in a county in northwest China’s restive Xinjiang region have conducted raids of residents’ homes as they continued to search for suspects involved in a Chinese flag-burning incident at a mosque that occurred more than a year ago, local villagers and officials said.

Police have detained hundreds of villagers and searched and confiscated abandoned houses where those involved in the incident could be hiding, they said

Authorities began raiding the homes of the predominantly Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghurs who live in Shayar (in Chinese, Shaya) county of Aksu (Akesu) prefecture this past January after three Uyghur youths burned a Chinese flag that was hoisted above an Islamic mosque in January 2014. Authorities had forced ethnic Uyghurs to bow to the flag when they came to worship, area residents said.

“The government did wrong by raising the (Chinese) flag in mosques,” said one Shayar resident who declined to be identified. “It is unacceptable to everyone and to any group of Muslims anywhere in world. Of course, the people cannot say ‘no’ because this is the situation in our county, but the silence is not a sign of the acceptance of or our consent to the flag being raised in the mosque.”

The ethnic minority Uyghurs have complained about pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by China’s communist government under its series of “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang in the name of fighting separatism, religion extremism and terrorism.

Authorities also have warned county resident to not discuss the flag-burning incident.

“The incident is already well known by all Shayarians, so I’m wondering why the authorities keep warning us to not spread news about it,” said another resident who declined to be named. “Furthermore, it’s so strange that the police are carrying out countywide raid operations, detaining hundreds of people from every village, then calling it a state secret.”

Village police officers are still searching for the trio who attempted to set the flag on fire, sources said.

A group called “Opening the Lid” recently distributed notices to residents of Shayar county that it would confiscate any abandoned houses and sell them if their owners did not appear within three days, residents said.

The group was set up at the end of January to assist police in their investigation into the flag-burning incident that occurred at Xaniqa mosque in the county’s Yengimehelle township.

Despite investigations conducted at various levels in the entire county, police have not yet identified or captured any suspects, officials said.

“The incident indicates the strong hostility to our government as well as the unity of country and harmony of ethnicities,” Sulayman Toxti, deputy chief of the group, told RFA’s Uyghur Service. “It’s also a signal of prospective major attacks to our state bodies. Because of this, we have not given up to trying to find suspects, even though the investigation has lasted so long and been fruitless so far.”

Toxti added that the “Opening the Lid” was formed after members of the swat team had captured a prison escapee in an abandoned house that was locked for a long time. Although the escapee has not been linked to the flag-burning incident, his method of hiding prompted the team to start checking all abandoned houses as part of their investigation of the flag-burning incident.

Patigul Qasim, whose name was listed as a contact person on the notice that country residents had received from local authorities, said police had registered 149 abandoned houses in three months, although no one was found hiding inside any of them and they did not yield any clues in the flag-burning incident.

The investigation begins

Police officer Exmet Yusup, who is in charge of the village where the mosque is located, said the imam was the first person to notice that the flag had been torn. He called the police who barred all the entry and exit points in Yengimehelle township. After three days, the investigation was widened to the entire county.

“There were two or three suspects who came to the mosque with a car, but they erased their footprints and tire tracks when they left,” he told RFA. “The incident occurred sometime between 2 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. and that’s all we know after a year of investigations and interrogations.”  

Exmet Qadir, deputy police chief of Yengiumehelle township said the suspects appeared to be “clever, experienced and brave.”

“They did everything very carefully and steady,” he said. “They took down the flag, spread something on it to make it dirty, lit it on fire, then put out the fire after part of the flag burned. They did this to keep some part of the flag so they could shove it in the faces of the public and authorities. They did it to increase the political effect of their actions.”

The flag burners appeared to have accomplished their goal by stoking the ire of local officials.

“No blood was shed in this incident, but as a result, its negative impact has bloodied the honor of our county … so we continuing to investigate the case,” said Eziz Toxti, chairman of county’s legal and political committee.

Another police officer told RFA that following the incident he raided all the houses in his village, visited all the families, and interrogated around 400 men ages 16-45.

“All of them were released after the interrogations because our village was far from the mosque and the camera in the border area did not show anyone coming into our village at the day,” he said.

But authorities had detained many men from Teriqeriq and Qaradong villages, which are close to the mosque, he said.

They detained Exmetjan Ablitip, 19, twice on suspicion that he was involved in the flag-burning incident—once on January 17 when he was held for 15 days, and again at the end of February on suspicion of burning the flag, said Hemit Seypi, chief of Teriqeriq village.

“Two months ago, the police chief ordered me to bring him to the police station again,” he said. “He was selling fruit in Korla (in Chinese, Kuerle) in Bayin’gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture. I called him and told him to come back. I took him to the police station after he returned to our village, but since then we have had no idea as to his whereabouts.”

Ablitip’s family keeps asking about the status of his case, but Seypi said he could not obtain any information from police.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.