Authorities in China’s capital detained an editor of a well-known Uyghur website over the weekend on charges of “attempting to escape the country” before releasing him following pressure from a number of prominent activists.
Perhat Halmurat, an editor for Uyghur Online, was taken into custody at Beijing International Airport around midnight on Sept. 28, minutes before his scheduled departure to Turkey, he told RFA’s Uyghur Service following his release.
He had received a scholarship for anthropology at Istanbul University and was traveling to Turkey to pursue his studies.
The Uyghur Online website is run by university professor Ilham Tohti, a vocal critic of the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs, whose homeland is in China's northwestern Xinjiang region and who complain of discrimination by the authorities and the country’s majority Han Chinese.
Perhat Halmurat, who is ethnically Uyghur, said that authorities never explained to him why he had been taken into custody where he was held for 16 hours, but that the documents he was given on his release stated that he was “attempting to escape overseas.”
“When I was arrested I told them that I did not break any law and was innocent,” he said.
“The police didn’t say anything about what law I broke, nor did they explain why I was being arrested. There was no official seal on the warrant, which only stated in the reason section ‘attempted to escape the country.’ I oppose the allegations.”
He said that only through the intervention of a number of prominent activists—including Ilham Tohti, activist artist Ai Weiwei, and writer Wang Lixiong—was he released.
“When the police took me in, I informed Ilham Tohti through my girlfriend. Later, Ilham Tohti contacted Ai Weiwei, Wang Lixiong, and several human rights lawyers,” he said.
“With their help I was released after 16 hours. I express my gratitude to those who worked on behalf of my release.”
Uyghur Online published a report after Perhat Halmurat’s release, detailing his experience in detention.
The young man from Illi Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture’s Tokkuztara (in Chinese, Gongliu) county, near Xinjiang’s Ghujla (in Chinese, Yining) city, was educated in Chinese schools from a very early age, and was fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
He received a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies from Beijing’s Minzu University in 2012 and had been pursuing graduate studies in anthropology at the same university before his planned trip to Turkey. He has no criminal record.
Ilham Tohti confirmed that he and other activists had worked to secure Perhat Halmurat’s release, adding that the pressure may have led the Beijing police to refuse to hand him over to authorities from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region who he said had originally ordered his detention.
“Not even the Xinjiang police would explain to him why he was detained,” he said, adding that he believed the police in Xinjiang had likely “wanted to ask him questions about [other Uyghur activists].”
“The reason why the Beijing police did not give Perhat up to the Xinjiang authorities is that they don’t agree with the arbitrary detentions frequently employed in Xinjiang. But we really don’t know why he was detained in the first place.”
According to Ilham Tohti, Perhat Halmurat was detained in front of his girlfriend and family members.
He had previously visited Hong Kong and other East Asian countries, including majority Muslim Malaysia, without any intervention from the government.
But he added that people associated with Uyghur Online, including a former volunteer for the website who was detained at the Beijing airport in July as he prepared to fly to Turkey to continue his studies and remains missing, were “always at the center of the government’s attention.”
“The detention of Perhat Halmurat and disappearance of [former volunteer] Mutellip Imin … shows how little space there is for freedom of speech in China,” he said.
“The authorities are breaking their own laws, blocking the channels we [Uyghurs] have to communicate with the government and the Chinese people. I condemn the Xinjiang authority’s systematic oppression against these authors and other people who are expressing their discontent in a peaceful way.”
Ilham Tohti was himself detained in February at the Beijing airport and prevented from taking a flight to the United States to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University.
Following Beijing's refusal to allow him to leave the country, unknown hackers attacked his website, which is hosted overseas and discusses Uyghur social issues and news from Xinjiang, briefly shutting it down.
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.
Another of Uyghur Online's webmasters, Shohret, was detained and interrogated earlier this year by police and forced to disclose Uyghur Online webmaster passwords, sources said.
Reported by Mihray Abdulim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.