BEIJING -- China's crackdown on Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region is in the spotlight again as leaked evidence points to the whereabouts of thousands of unjustly detained Uighurs.
Researchers estimate that more than one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims -- including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz -- are being held in a secretive network of detention centres and prisons in Xinjiang under a years-long security crackdown that rights groups, the United States and other countries have called a "genocide".
Beijing has vociferously denied genocide allegations, calling them the "lie of the century" and arguing that its policies have countered extremism and improved livelihoods.
Yet information on the crackdown in Xinjiang -- and those who have been ensnared by it -- is closely guarded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
That has left relatives unable to contact detainees or seek answers from police, with just a fraction of court notices from Xinjiang publicly available.
Families torn apart
Nursimangul Abdureshid, who now lives in Turkey, lost contact with her family five years ago.
It took until 2020 for the Chinese embassy in Ankara to confirm that her younger brother Memetili, as well as her parents, had been imprisoned for terrorism-related offences.
But the suspected police list leaked to Uighur activists outside China has located Memetili in a prison outside Aksu, about 600km from their home.
He was sentenced to 15 years and 11 months in jail, the documents show -- a figure confirmed by Beijing's embassy in Ankara.
"It is much better than not knowing anything about where he is. There is a small happiness," Abdureshid, 33, told AFP from Istanbul, where she has lived since 2015.
"I check the weather there sometimes, to see if it is cold or warm."
The previously unreported database, which has been seen by AFP, lists more than 10,000 imprisoned Uighurs from southwestern Xinjiang's Konasheher county -- including more than 100 from Abdureshid's village.
Her parents' location remains a mystery, as well as that of an older brother who is also believed to be detained.
Abdureshid recognised the names of seven other villagers on the list of detainees -- all small business owners or farm workers who she says would not have links to terrorism.
"When I search this list, I just feel like I can't breathe," she said.
The leaked list details each prisoner's name, birth date, ethnicity, ID number, charge, address, sentence length and prison.
For some Uighurs living outside China who identified detained relatives and acquaintances on the list, it was the first information they have been able to access about their relatives in years.
Hundreds were detained from each township and village, the database shows, often many from the same household.
"This is not clearly targeted anti-terrorism," said David Tobin, lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield in Britain.
"It's going to every door and taking a number of people away. It really shows they're arbitrarily targeting a community and dispersing it across a region."
People were jailed for broad charges including "gathering a group to disrupt social order", "promoting extremism", and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble".
Government data show the number of people sentenced by Xinjiang courts soared from about 21,000 in 2014 to more than 133,000 in 2018.
Many other Uighurs, never charged with any crimes, were sent to what activists call "re-education camps" spread across Xinjiang.
At these camps, which Beijing calls "vocational training centres", foreign governments and rights groups have found evidence of what they say are forced labour, political indoctrination, torture, systematic rape and forced sterilisation.
Someone from every house
As Beijing's "Strike Hard" ideological campaign against Islamic extremism ramped up in 2017, the proportion of prison sentences of more than five years almost tripled from the year before.
Most were handed down in closed-door trials.
Norway-based Uighur activist Abduweli Ayup said he recognised about 30 relatives and neighbours on the leaked list.
"In Oghusaq, my father's home village, and Opal, my mother's home village, you can see that every house has someone detained," Ayup told AFP, adding they were mostly tradespeople and illiterate farmers.
"My cousin was just a farmer. If you ask him what is 'terrorism', he couldn't even read the word, even less understand it."
A second suspected leaked police database seen by AFP identifies another 18,000 Uighurs, mostly from Kashgar and Aksu prefectures, detained between 2008 and 2015.
Of these, the vast majority were charged with vague terrorism-related offences.
Several hundred were linked to the 2009 Urumqi riots in which almost 200 people died. More than 900 individuals were accused of manufacturing explosives.
Almost 300 cases mentioned watching or possessing "illegal" videos.
One Uighur living in Europe who wishes to stay anonymous told AFP he recognised six friends on the second list, including one who was 16 at the time of detention.
"I was devastated to see so many people I knew," he said.
'Harmonious and stable'
Beijing describes its treatment of the Uighurs as a legitimate response to extremism, and says it has spent billions of dollars on economic renewal of the poor region.
"We have already refuted some organisations' and individuals' fabricated lies about Xinjiang," the Chinese Foreign Ministry wrote in response to AFP questions on the leaked list.
"Xinjiang society is harmonious and stable ... and all ethnic minorities fully enjoy various rights."
In reality, Beijing is making swift progress on its five-year "sinicisation" policy.
As part of the 2018-2022 plan to make Muslims more "Chinese", CCP authorities have been removing mosque domes, minarets and other symbols of Islamic architecture and banning mosques from playing the adhan (call to prayer) on loudspeakers.
The plan is being actively implemented throughout China, not just in the majority-Muslim Xinjiang region.
As part of the plan, this past Ramadan, Chinese authorities set limits on the number of Muslims allowed to observe the holy month.