Alimjan Yimit, 36, was charged Jan. 11, 2008, with "suspicions of harming national security," an accusation generally leveled against those considered enemies of the state, said Bob Fu, president of the ChinaAid human rights organization, in a statement to the press. The following month, the charges were changed to "inciting secession" and leaking state secrets, but court officials returned the case to prosecutors for lack of evidence. Alimjan was secretly tried on the second charge July 28.
The Xinjiang region is a hotbed of separatist activity pitting the indigenous Uyghurs against the ruling Han Chinese. Authorities appear to be trying to shut down leadership of the Uyghur church as part of a broader government crackdown in the area, the Compass Direct news service reported. The vast majority of Uyghurs practice Islam; only a handful of an estimated 10 million Uyghurs are known to be Christians. Alimjan is a convert from Islam.
The verdict against Alimjan follows long criminal detention and labor camp sentences handed down on 10 leaders of a Chinese house church for their attempts to protest an attack against their facilities in mid-September. The two longest criminal detention sentences -- which entail incarceration in a high-security prison where inmates often are mentally abused, starved and beaten -- were pronounced against Yang Rongli, wife of the pastor of a house church in the northeastern Chinese city of Linfen, who received a seven-year sentence, and her husband, Wang Xiaoquang, who received a three-year sentence.
Alimjan's "15-year sentence is far more severe than I originally expected," said his lawyer, Li Dunyong, in a press statement. "It is the maximum penalty for this charge of 'divulging state secrets,' which requires actions to be defined as having 'caused irreparable national grave damage.'"
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had said Alimjan's arrest and detention were arbitrary and in violation of international law, Li added.
Alimjan's sentence was the most severe handed down against a house church leader in nearly decade, Fu said.
"The whole world should be appalled at this injustice against innocent Christian leader," Fu said. "We call upon the U.N. and people of conscience throughout the world to strongly protest to the Chinese government for this severe case of religious persecution."
The Chinese ambassador in Washington, D.C., Zhou Wenzhong, may be contacted at 3505 International Place NW, Washington, D.C. 20008; telephone, 202-495-2000; fax, 202-588-9760.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.
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