China Seizes Jailed Uyghur Scholar's Savings, Sparking Fears Over Family Home

Ilham Tohti and his wife in a photo sent to RFA's Uyghur Service via WeChat on Jan 13, 2014, two days before his detention.

Nearly U.S.$140,000 in savings have been drained from the bank account of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party enforces its seizure of his assets, sparking fears that his young family may be evicted from their Beijing apartment, his wife said on Tuesday.

The former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing was handed a life sentence for "separatism" by a court in northwestern China's troubled Xinjiang region on Sept. 23, as well as deprivation of political rights and confiscation of all his assets.

Tohti's wife Guzelnur told RFA on Tuesday that a total of 850,000 yuan (U.S. $140,000) in savings had now been taken out of her husband's bank account.

"They took it all, two days ago," Guzelnur said. "They won't give me anything now, and I didn't even get a letter."

"Last time [I tried to withdraw money] the account had been frozen," she said.

Trying to subsist

Guzelnur said she is concerned about trying to subsist and raise the couple's two young sons on a meager salary from the same university.

She said Tohti's young family could also eventually face homelessness.

"I don't know how we'll get by," she said. "If they confiscate the apartment as well, then we won't even have a place to live."

"I have two kids there; what if [the authorities] make their move? One of them is not even eight years old, and the other's not yet five," Guzelnur said.

She said she is also very worried about Tohti's health in prison, as temperatures plummet below freezing in Xinjiang.

"Before the trial, we sent him [stuff in the detention center], but after that, we couldn't send him clothes or any other items," she said.

She said Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping had called on Tuesday to say that Urumqi is "extremely cold."

"I told him to go and ask [at the detention center], to say we already have his winter clothes ready, and can send them over," Guzelnur added.

Tohti, 44, who immediately voiced protest when the verdict and sentence was announced at the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court, is in the process of appealing his sentence, his lawyers said.

"I am reading through the appeal files, and I will also go through the paperwork as his instructed lawyer, and then I will need to meet with him," Li said, shortly after arriving in Urumqi on Tuesday.

A second member of Tohti's defense team, Liu Xiaoyuan, said he didn't think the court would hold a hearing to hear the appeal, however.

"There is no new evidence," Liu said. "They have pretty much [said they won't hold a hearing]."

"It will just be an enquiry style hearing in which they ask the defendant and listen to the opinions of the lawyer, and then produce a written judgment," he said.

No fair trial

Tohti's conviction sparked a wave of condemnation in China and from the international community, with human rights activists saying he never received the benefit of a fair trial, and that he should never have been tried in the first place for exercising his constitutional right to free expression.

The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.

But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.

Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year antiterrorism campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.

Exile Uyghur groups have repeatedly said the root causes of recent violence in Xinjiang lie with China's treatment of peaceful Uyghur dissidents.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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