Chinese soldiers march in front of the Id Kah mosque in  July 2014 in Kashgar, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Authorities in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang gave a seven-year prison sentence to an ethnic Uighur man for watching what reports claim was a politically "sensitive" film.

According to Radio Free Asia, officials claimed the man, identified as Eli Yasin, a resident of Chaghraq township in Aksu prefecture, had watched a film on Muslim migration and was possibly "planning to go abroad 'to wage jihad.'" Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic minority, are the majority population in Xinjiang and have long complained of discrimination and marginalization by the Chinese state.

Details about the specific film Yasin and his family members watched are unclear, but it led to his arrest last year. RFA, a private broadcaster funded in part by the U.S. government, spoke with a local official who conveyed the family's complaints:

Family circumstances argued against their having had such a plan, though, Hesen Eysa, security chief for Yasin’s Karasu village, told RFA’s Uyghur Service.

“All of them were over 40 years of age,” Eysa said. “They had a farm, and they were struggling to survive and provide for their children’s education."

“They showed no signs of opposing the government.  At least I never saw any signs of this,” he said.

“As a security chief, I am having a hard time explaining these charges to the people in my village.”

“None of this makes any sense. It is very unjust,” he said.

Chinese authorities claim numerous Uighur militants have joined the Islamic State and other militant groups operating closer to home in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The prospect of unrest and terrorist violence has led to ruthless crackdowns, including a raid last December when Chinese paramilitary forces killed 28 suspected militants in an operation that involved flushing the suspects out of a cave with flamethrowers.

As my colleague Simon Denyer has reported, Beijing employs rather heavy-handed policies when reckoning with religion in this restive corner of China. Authorities in Xinjiang have censored sermons delivered at mosques, forced public servants to forsake their fast and eat during the holy month of Ramadan, and have made devout Muslim men and women shave their bears and remove their veils.

"China wants Uighurs everywhere to know that the state is always watching them," Memet Toxti, a Uighur dissident living in exile, told RFA.

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