BEIJING -- The U.S. government and human rights activists are voicing concern about the detention of a professor who has been an outspoken advocate for China’s Uighur minority group.
Ilham Tohti’s home in Beijing was ransacked Wednesday afternoon by more than 20 police officers who seized computers, phones, credit cards and documents and took him into custody, his wife, Guzaili Nu’er, said by phone Friday. About 10 officers remained posted outside, she said, adding that she has had no contact with Tohti for 48 hours, and authorities have refused to divulge his whereabouts.
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 province -- 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.
[Updated, 8:23 a.m. PST Jan. 17: Tohti’s detention comes as Chinese leaders seem to be taking a firmer stance against a range of 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, is to go on trial on charges of illegally organizing demonstrations, his lawyer told Reuters on Friday. He was arrested over the summer.]
Tohti has come under increasing pressure since October, when a car driven by three Uighurs mowed down two tourists near Tiananmen Square, 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 and violating the law, but did not offer further details.
Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, said Tohti’s detention 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 added.
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 blocked from boarding a plane at the Beijing airport as he was on his way to take up a fellowship at Indiana University.
Uighurs complain of employment discrimination, religious restrictions and other poor treatment at the hands of majority Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Rioting in the provincial capital, Urumqi, erupted in 2009, leaving 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.
Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping gave what was hailed by official media as a highly significant speech to top officials on the government’s priorities in Xinjiang.
Although details on the content of the address 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 economic development.
Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Friday it was possible authorities would charge Tohti 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 Tohti against his will. “The student said investigators seemed to be building a case against Tohti. Unfortunately that appears to be the case.”
On Thursday, Xinjiang officials reiterated their vow to crack down on terrorism and said the province was doubling its anti-terrorism budget in 2014.
"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. "The government is determined to curb the spread of religious extremism as well as prevent severe violent terrorist attacks and mass incidents from happening.”
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 Chinese activists.
“The ever-tighter political environment in China is a tough problem facing the civil society,” the message read. “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.”