China detains prominent Uighur scholar for 'breaking law'

China detains prominent Uighur scholar for 'breaking law'

BEIJING - Reuters
China detains prominent Uighur scholar for breaking law

University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti was held by a group of police on Jan. 15 along with his mother. AFP photo

Chinese police have detained the country's most high-profile Uighur academic, an outspoken critic of official policies in the restive far-western region of Xinjiang, on suspicion of "breaking the law", the government said on Jan. 16.
His detention is the latest indication of the government's increasing hardline stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where violent riots in the past year have killed at least 91 people, rights activists say. 

Xinjiang is home to the Muslim Uighur people who speak a Turkic language. Many resent what they see as oppressive treatment by the government, although Beijing says they are granted wide religious, cultural and linguistic freedoms. 

Police in Beijing seized Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur economist who has championed the rights of the Uighur community in Xinjiang, at his home and his whereabouts were unknown, his wife and close friend told Reuters. 

Tohti has challenged the government's version of several incidents involving Uighurs, including what Beijing says is its first major suicide attack involving two men from Xinjiang in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, by pointing out inconsistencies in the official accounts, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. 

"Ilham is suspected of breaking the law," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily news briefing. 

"The public security organs have detained him in accordance with the law. The relevant departments will now deal with him in accordance with the law." 

Washington expresses concern

The U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned by reports that Tohti had been taken into custody with at least six of his students. 

"The detention of Mr. Tohti, who has been outspoken in support of human rights for China's ethnic Uighur citizens, appears to be 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," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. 

Tohti's wife, Guzailai Nu'er, said about 30 police from Xinjiang and Beijing arrived at her apartment to seize Tohti and confiscate his computer and books. They did not give her a reason, she said. 

"I trust my husband. He didn't do anything unlawful," she said in a phone interview from her apartment, which was surrounded by police. "All he has done is write detailed articles researching the population in Xinjiang. There's nothing else to it." 

Tsering Woeser, a prominent Tibetan writer and friend, said Tohti told her a week ago that he had heard the authorities in Xinjiang had told Beijing police that they wanted to arrest him, but later heard that Beijing did not approve it. 

"At that time, he said that he felt he was in a very dangerous position," Woeser said. 
Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing's Minzu University which specialises in ethnic minority studies, told Reuters in November that state security agents had physically threatened him for speaking to foreign reporters.