Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have formally arrested three students of detained Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti on charges of “splittism” and “revealing state secrets,” while the fate of two other students remains unknown, their instructor’s wife said Wednesday.
Authorities informed the families of Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Tursun and Abdukeyum Ablimit—who have been in custody for more than a month—by telephone on Feb. 24 of the charges against the trio and confirmed that they were placed in facilities in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, Tohti’s wife Guzelnur said.
“Perhat and Shohret have been charged with ‘splittism,’ while Abdukeyum was charged with ‘revealing state secrets,’” Guzelnur said, citing a conversation she had with Halmurat’s parents.
“They are in Urumqi … The parents are trying to find out which prison,” she said, adding that the families of the students had been served with formal documents the day after authorities notified them of their arrests by telephone.
She said it was unclear in which detention center the three were being held.
Guzelnur informed RFA’s Uyghur Service earlier this week that her husband had been moved to the Urumqi from Beijing and formally charged with “splittism” by local authorities on Feb. 20. He faces a maximum of life in prison if convicted, according to his lawyer.
An outspoken scholar, Tohti has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs, whose homeland is in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and who complain of discrimination by the authorities and the country’s majority Han Chinese.
Guzelnur said that the families of the student trio are currently working to find them legal representation.
Calls to the families by RFA on Wednesday resulted in messages indicating that their phones had been disconnected.
Halmurat and Tursun had been taken into custody in the capital Beijing where they were studying at the Central University for Nationalities on Jan. 15, the same day that their professor Tohti was detained by authorities.
Ablimit, also of Central University for Nationalities, was detained in Beijing on Jan. 17.
Tursun’s family is from Urumqi and Halmurat is from Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), the capital of Xinjiang's Ili prefecture. The location of Ablimit’s hometown was unclear.
The family of Halmurat had previously received a letter from the Urumqi police informing them of his detention in Urumqi.
Guzelnur said that information about the cases of two other former students arrested on the same day as Tohti—Mutellip Imin and his girlfriend Atikem Rozi—was unknown.
She said that Imin, who once worked as a volunteer for Tohti's website, may have been transferred to a facility in southwestern Xinjiang’s Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian), where he was detained, while Rozi is believed to be held somewhere in Urumqi.
Imin, originally from Hotan, had been detained previously in Beijing in July when he tried to return to his university in Istanbul and was held for 79 days. On his release, he had his passport confiscated by the authorities, barring him from traveling to Turkey, where he previously attended university.
Rozi, who is from Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture in western Xinjiang, was originally detained in Beijing on Jan. 15, but released by authorities that evening. She went to Tohti’s home in Beijing to meet with him the following day, but was barred from entering the building and taken into custody again.
Meanwhile, authorities in Urumqi have refused to divulge the location where Tohti is being held in detention and his lawyer, Li Fangping, has been barred by the local Public Security Bureau from meeting with him, Guzelnur told RFA.
Tohti has already been in custody for more than a month with no word to his family.
“I heard from lawyer Li Fangping who said that the police wouldn’t allow him to see my husband,” she said.
“They say Li must wait until they give him the green light,” she said, adding that the lawyer, who recently arrived in Urumqi after being notified of his client’s formal arrest, would try to meet with him again the following day.
Li told RFA earlier this week that the charge against Tohti amounted to “a very serious crime” and that “if they can make it stand up” he was most likely to receive a sentence between ten years and life in prison, though China’s criminal code also provides for the death penalty for “splittism.”
Li said he couldn't see how Tohti's activities prior to his detention could add up to such a crime and expressed optimism that they would be able to overturn the charge.
The Bureau of Public Security for Urumqi had previously said in an online statement that Tohti recruited followers through a website he founded to cause trouble, spread separatist thoughts, incite ethnic hatred, and engage in separatist activities.
It alleged that the scholar told students that Uyghurs should use violence and oppose the government as China opposed Japanese invaders during World War II.
But the U.S. State Department on Wednesday expressed concern over the charges leveled at Tohti and called for his immediate release.
“We are deeply concerned by reports that Chinese authorities have decided to formally arrest economics professor Ilham Tohti after detaining him for more than a month without access to his family or attorney,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
“We call on Chinese authorities to release Mr. Tohti and to guarantee him the protections and freedoms to which he’s entitled under China’s international human rights commitments, including the freedom of expression.”
Uyghur human rights groups have said that Tohti’s detention is part of Beijing's broad strategy to drown the voices of the minority Uyghurs and underscores its increasing hard-line stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where a sweeping security crackdown may have led to about 100 killings since April—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
He has spoken out for better implementation of China’s regional autonomy laws in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Mihray Abdilim and Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.