A group of global scholars and human rights organizations have criticized Chinese authorities for imposing a travel ban on prominent Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti, saying the case epitomizes intimidation of intellectuals generally in China and suppression of ethnic rights.
Scholars at Risk (SAR), a New York-based international network of over 300 universities and colleges in 34 countries, sent a letter to President Hu Jintao this week asking him to investigate the case and urging the appropriate authorities to explain publicly the circumstances surrounding the travel restriction on the professor.
Ilham Tohti, who teaches at the Central Minorities University in Beijing, was detained and prevented from taking a flight from the Chinese capital to the United States on Feb. 1 to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University on a U.S.-issued J-1 visa.
He told RFA's Uyghur Service last week that he is being watched around the clock by police stationed outside his Beijing home.
SAR, which seeks to promote academic freedom, said that the travel ban on Ilham Tohti "suggests serious concerns not only about his ability to engage with colleagues in his field, but also about intimidation of intellectuals generally in China and about the ability to conduct world-class scholarship in such an environment."
"These are suggestions we find particularly distressing given both China’s rich intellectual history and the important role that China and Chinese universities and scholars in particular should play in the development of knowledge, research and scholarship in the 21st century," the group said in the Feb. 12 dated letter to Hu, a copy of which was given to RFA.
It said that if there are no official restrictions on Ilham Tohti, the authorities should expedite approval of any pending or future travel requests.
Ilham Tohti is a vocal critic of the Chinese government’s treatment of the country's minority Uyghurs, most of whom live in the northwestern Xinjiang region and complain of discrimination by the country’s majority Han Chinese. He had been detained several times before.
World Uyghur Congress Secretary-General Nurmemet Musabay told RFA that the travel ban on Ilham Tohti underscores Beijing's concerns that he would publicize internationally the "crimes" committed by Chinese authorities against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
"In other words, China is afraid of his prominent status and their own crimes that they committed in the Uyghur region, so they prevented him from traveling," he said. "China should know that the world has become a smaller place and more open than before."
"I think that a powerful country like China should not be afraid of its own citizens going abroad, and should not be afraid of its own citizens speaking out against the government. It should have the confidence that the state would not collapse because of public criticism," Nurmemet Musabay said.
He said Uyghurs with different views than those of the government are considered "enemies of the state in the eyes of the government," stressing that Ilham Tohti's case "would only strengthen our political thoughts."
The Dublin, Ireland-based Front Line Defenders, a human rights group, said Ilham Tohti was provided with no information by the Chinese police officers questioning him at the airport as to why he was being detained or prevented from traveling to the U.S.
The move to restrict Ilham Tohti's travel "is directly related to his work in defense of human rights and the exercise of his right to freedom of expression, and constitutes a flagrant breach of his right to freedom of movement," it said.
Front Line Defenders urged Beijing to "immediately and unconditionally" lift the travel ban.
Following Beijing's refusal to allow him to leave the country, unknown hackers attacked Ilham Tohti's website Uighurbiz.net, which is hosted overseas and discusses Uyghur social issues and news from Xinjiang. The website was found to be functioning Wednesday.
Chinese authorities have also harassed his student Atikem Rozi, Ilham Tohti said, with police taking her on Feb. 5 from her home in Toksu county in Xinjiang’s Aksu district and questioning her for four to five hours.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness in Xinjiang despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities often link Uyghurs to violent separatist groups but experts familiar with the region have said Beijing exaggerates what it calls a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.