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.
Others dismissed the anti-beard campaign as a "simple and crude" measure that would do little to ensure public safety, or referred to the beard worn by the German political theorist whose writings are a cornerstone of Communist Party ideology. One commenter asked, "How many years would Marx have been sentenced to?"
Authorities in Xinjiang have been campaigning against men growing beards, a practice officials associate with what Beijing has called extremism, for more than a year.
In April 2014, Chinese newspaper The Global Times reported that officials in Xinjiang’s eastern Aksu Prefecture offered rewards ranging from $8 to $8,000 for information about “separatist activities,” which included growing facial hair.
A campaign dubbed "Project Beauty" also launched last year in Xinjiang encourages women to leave their heads bare and abandon wearing the veil, which some Muslims consider a religious requirement.
Rights groups say Beijing's repression of Uighur culture and religion has fanned tensions in Xinjiang, a resource-rich region that borders China's central Asian neighbors.
Beijing defends its policies, arguing it has boosted economic development in the area and that it upholds minority and religious rights in a country with 55 recognized ethnic minorities.
"The Chinese government will do its best to promote stability and economic development as well as harmonious coexistence of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.
Scores of Uighur dissidents have been arrested or killed by security forces in recent months. In one prominent case, a Uighur economics professor and advocate for social equality, Ilham Tohti, was sentenced to life in prison over allegations of separatist activity, in a trial criticized by international human rights advocates.
Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse