US sees ‘disturbing pattern’ in China arrest
BEIJING — China’s detention of a professor who has been an outspoken advocate for Uighurs comes amid signs of an increased security push in the minority group’s western region and has drawn quick expressions of concern from the U.S. government and rights activists.
Ilham Tohti’s home in Beijing was ransacked Wednesday afternoon by more than 20 police officers, who seized computers, telephones, credit cards and documents and took him into custody, his wife, Guzaili Nuer, said by phone Friday. About 10 officers remained posted outside.
Tohti, an economics professor at the Central University for Nationalities, has for years chronicled and commented on the often-tense relations between Uighurs, a Muslim minority concentrated in western China’s Xinjiang region, and majority Han Chinese.
He helps run a website, Uighur Biz, and posts frequently on Twitter and Chinese microblogs.
In recent days, several of Tohti’s students were strip-searched, questioned and detained as well, according to a statement posted on the Twitter feed of Uighur Biz.
Tohti has come under increasing pressure since October, when a car driven by three Uighurs mowed down two tourists near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and then burst into flames in front of the Forbidden City. The government has labeled the incident a terrorist act.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Thursday that Tohti was suspected of committing crimes but did not offer details.
Early this month, President Xi Jinping gave what was hailed by official media as a significant speech to top officials on the government’s priorities in Xinjiang. Although details on the content have been sketchy, state-run news outlets have reported that the central government now regards “sustaining an enduring peace” and social stability as the key task in the western region, rather than sorely needed economic development.
On Thursday, Xinjiang officials reiterated their vow to crack down on terrorism and said the region was doubling its anti-terrorism budget this year.
“We must constantly strike hard against violent terrorism, showing no mercy,” Nur Bekri, chairman of the regional government, said in comments reported by the People’s Daily newspaper.
“The government is determined to curb the spread of religious extremism as well as prevent severe violent terrorist attacks and mass incidents from happening.”
Tohti’s detention comes as Chinese leaders seem to be taking a firmer stance against activists pressing a variety of causes.
On Wednesday, Xu Zhiyong, founder of the New Citizens Movement, who has campaigned against corruption and for greater civil rights, will go on trial on charges of illegally organizing demonstrations, his lawyer told Reuters news service Friday. He was arrested last summer.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that holding Tohti was “part of a disturbing pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions.”
“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,” she said.
Tohti has had repeated run-ins with security forces. In November, he reported that plainclothes officers rammed his vehicle while he was en route to the Beijing airport to pick up his mother. The officers, Tohti said, were trying to pressure him to stop talking to foreign reporters.
In February, Tohti was prevented from boarding a plane to take him to a fellowship at Indiana University.
Uighurs complain of employment discrimination, religious restrictions and other poor treatment in Xinjiang.
Rioting in the provincial capital, Urumqi, in 2009 left about 200 people dead.
Last year, Xinjiang saw a number of deadly clashes; in several cases, authorities said mobs of Uighurs attacked police stations, setting fire to vehicles and slashing people with knives. Uighur activists have challenged some of those accounts, saying officers attacked Uighurs who were peacefully protesting mistreatment by authorities.
After one such incident last summer, authorities sent hundreds of military vehicles and troops into Urumqi in a major show of force.
In the case of Tohti, Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Friday that it was possible authorities would charge him with inciting separatism.
“It’s very easy for police to ‘prove’ that he engaged in actions that have harmed ethnic unity,” Bequelin said. “This fits with the general picture on Xinjiang at the moment, with Xi having taken a personal stance and a hard line.”
Bequelin said one of Tohti’s students was detained in a police guest house for two weeks last year, questioned about the professor and forced to sign an incriminating statement about him. “The student said investigators seemed to be building a case against Tohti. Unfortunately that appears to be the case.”
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Among Tohti’s last social media posts before he was detained were a retweet of a map of China supposedly made by European explorers — which did not show Xinjiang as part of the country — and a message on the pressure faced by activists.
“The ever-tighter political environment in China is a tough problem facing the civil society,” the post says. “Any organization or projects organized by citizen activists, as soon as they touch the government’s political red lines, they might be suppressed or even destroyed.”
Tohti’s wife said her husband was not guilty of any crimes. “I don’t think he has done anything illegal. He is a normal person, teaching classes; he is not doing sensitive things.”
Tohti, she said, “has always tried to tell the truth. He is an intellectual with a conscience.”