Uyghur Human Rights Project urges international community to maintain vigilance on the condition of Uyghur academic, Ilham Tohti

For immediate Release
January 17, 2014, 1:30 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur Human Rights Project +1 (202) 478 1920

The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) expresses its concern for the condition of Ilham Tohti, who was arbitrarily detained by Beijing and Xinjiang police on January 15, 2014. UHRP calls on the Chinese authorities to immediately release Mr. Tohti and to return all personal property, including data, confiscated from Mr. Tohti during the raid on his home in Beijing. 

UHRP also commends the strong statements issued by the US State Department and European Union regarding Ilham Tohti’s arbitrary detention and asks officials from concerned governments to sustain pressure on China for Mr. Tohti’s unconditional release.

UHRP believes Mr. Tohti’s detention demonstrates the Chinese state is prepared to break its own laws in order to follow through on a new government strategy to further tighten security measures aimed at Uyghurs and silence remaining voices of dissent against Chinese policies in East Turkestan.

“The detention of Mr. Tohti should sound alarm bells around the world regarding China’s zero tolerance approach to Uyghur freedom of speech,” said UHRP Director, Alim Seytoff in a statement. “No Uyghur is safe from the unchecked power of the Chinese state. Uyghurs across East Turkestan are routinely picked up by the Chinese police, afforded no due process and then frequently disappear into China’s opaque penal system. That someone with Ilham Tohti’s profile is subjected to the same treatment is an indication the Chinese authorities are ready to intensify repression of Uyghurs. Besides the clear legal problems with the Chinese state’s approach to managing Uyghur dissent, there is a strong moral case for the international community to publicly challenge Chinese officials over Mr. Tohti’s case and the conditions prevailing in East Turkestan.”

Ilham Tohti, an economist at the Minzu University of China in Beijing, has often questioned the efficacy of Chinese government policies targeting Uyghurs citing worsening economic, social and cultural conditions in East Turkestan. He is also known for operating the Uighurbiz website, which offers information on Uyghur social issues in Mandarin Chinese and has been hosted overseas after unrest in Urumchi in 2009. Since Mr. Tohti’s detention the Uighurbiz website has been offline due to a suspected hack. According to Mr. Tohti’s wife, Guzelnur, computers and phones were taken from Mr. Tohti’s home at the time of his detention. In addition to Mr. Tohti, Chinese police also detained Mr. Tohti’s elderly mother, who has since been released. Contrary to Chinese laws, Mr. Tohti and his mother were not informed of the reason of their detention by Chinese police. The World Uyghur Congress has compiled a timeline of arrests, harassment and reprisals that Professor Tohti, his family, and others associated with the Uighurbiz website have faced in recent years.

Following Mr. Tohti’s detention, US State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki said in a statement:

We call on Chinese authorities to immediately account for the whereabouts of Mr. Tohti and his students and guarantee Mr. Tohti and his students the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments, including the freedom of expression.

European Union ambassador to China, Markus Ederer told reporters in a briefing held in Beijing on January 17, 2014

I have called on the authorities to treat him in line with Chinese legislation, to substantiate the inform the family of his whereabouts. If these charges cannot be substantiated, release him.

Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher, Nicholas Bequelin also expressed concern regarding Mr. Tohti and told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

I think that the signals are pretty bad for Mr Tohti at the moment. This is a very deliberate move by the authorities: You have the police arresting him and questioning his students; You have his website - the web platform that he helped run and that is hosted abroad - that has been taken down by hacking attacks and you have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a prepared position. This level of inter-departmental coordination is not usual in China so I think it reflects that a decision was taken fairly high up to move and arrest him.

The pattern of detention directed at Uyghurs with outspoken views on social issues is also demonstrated in the case of Abduweli Ayup, who advocated strengthening the use of the Uyghur language in East Turkestan and opened Uyghur-language schools to that effect. Abduweli Ayup was detained in 2013 for “allegedly illegally collecting donations” for his school and his current condition and whereabouts are unknown.

On January 7, 2014, Chinese President, Xi Jinping announced a “major strategy shift” in East Turkestan, which would reprioritize regional policies toward “social stability” from a focus on economic development. On January 17, 2014, Chinese state media detailed how regional officials plan to double the budget for the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (PSB) following a string of unaccounted for incidents in 2013 involving the use of lethal state force on Uyghurs. UHRP fears the Chinese authorities will use Xi’s announcement and the PSB’s increased budget as a green light to intensify state violence against Uyghurs in East Turkestan and indiscriminately round up Uyghurs for real or perceived dissent to Chinese policies.