A six-year prison sentence reportedly given to a man in China’s traditionally Muslim Xinjiang region for growing a beard was “absurd,” an overseas advocacy group said.
The sentence comes as Beijing continues its crackdown on visible signs of Muslim religious observance among the country’s Uighur ethnic minority. Chinese authorities have warned of a violent separatist movement among Uighurs, but international rights activists have broadly criticized China’s treatment of the group. Hours after Chinese state media reported the man’s sentencing on Sunday, the incident was reported in the international media as another example of China’s repression of Uighur religious freedom. Accounts of the sentencing online on Chinese state media have since disappeared.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress advocacy organization, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday that the Chinese media reports of the punishment were “typical of the political persecution” faced by Uighurs.
“This is a case that would not happen in any other country in the world,” Raxit said in a statement. “It is unacceptable and absurd. It exposes China’s hostile attitude and crisis of governance.”
“If a Chinese person grows a beard, it is a personal fashion he is allowed to choose freely. If a Uighur grows a beard, he is a religious extremist,” he added.
On Sunday, the state-owned newspaper China Youth Daily reported that a court in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar sentenced a 38-year-old Uighur man to six years in jail for growing a beard, while his wife was given two years for veiling herself.
The man “had started growing his beard in 2010” and his wife “wore a veil hiding her face and a burqa,” the paper said. Both practices are discouraged by local authorities.
The couple were found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vague accusation regularly used in the Chinese judicial system against dissidents.
An employee of Kashgar’s propaganda department declined to confirm the report Monday, telling AFP, “I know nothing about this.”
Chinese state media later appeared to retract its own accounts of the sentencing, after the story was picked up by international English-language media Monday, in an apparent attempt to prevent further criticism of China’s human rights record. The China Youth Daily report and several other articles on the case had been deleted from mainland news sites hours after an article on The Washington Post publicized the incident.
The initial accounts spurred debate among users of China’s popular online social networks.
Some said the punishment was an appropriate way to guard against extremism. “Anyone dressed that way is a terrorist, not a Muslim!” wrote one user on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.