Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have formally arrested outspoken Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti on separatism charges, his family said on Tuesday.
Tohti, who has already been in custody for more than a month with no word to his family, was formally arrested on Feb. 20 by the Xinjiang capital Urumqi municipal police department on suspicion of "splitting the country," his wife Guzelnur said after receiving an official police notification by post on Tuesday.
"Following the approval [of his arrest] by the Urumqi Municipal People's Procuratorate, the Public Security Bureau has arrested Ilham Tohti for suspected splitting of the country," the statement, a copy of which was seen by RFA's Uyghur service, said.
"He is currently being held in a detention center run by the Public Security Bureau of the [Xinjiang] autonomous region," said the letter, which was signed "Urumqi Public Security Bureau" and dated Feb. 20.
Tohti, who has spoken out for greater autonomy for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), was dragged away from his home in Beijing by dozens of police on Jan. 15.
"I am so sad, and I am very angry too," Guzelnur told RFA's Uyghur Service. "My husband ... is a good teacher and scholar. He just speaks out for Uyghurs, and wants to help Uyghurs."
"He gave interviews to the international media, and he blamed the Xinjiang government [for the situation there,]" she added.
She said Tohti's detention had hit the couple's children, aged three and seven, hard.
"They are crying all day missing their dad," Guzelnur said. "I have no way to deal with this situation."
"I am discussing what to do with his lawyer right now, who has arrived in Urumqi now and is planning to meet with Ilham," Guzelnur said.
Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping said the charge of "splitting the country" carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
He said he had just arrived in Urumqi and had not yet been given clearance to visit his client.
"We still need to remove one obstacle," Li said. "I haven't yet formally visited the public security bureau, and I will probably have to wait until tomorrow."
"The charge of splitting the country ... is a very serious crime, and he could receive a maximum of life imprisonment if they can make it stand up," he said.
Li said he couldn't see how Tohti's activities prior to his detention could add up to such a crime.
"I think there's a big gap here, based on my observation of all of his public comment, and I have confidence that we will be able to overturn this charge," he said.
Tohti has been detained many times as a result of his advocacy of Uyghurs' rights, and was stopped from leaving China to take up a year-long university position in the United States in February 2013.
A Uyghur rights group expressed "alarm" on hearing that Tohti has been formally arrested and charged with “separatism.”
The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said the charge "reflects not only a zero tolerance policy to Uyghur dissent, but also the growing intractability of China towards international criticism of its ethnic policies."
UHRP challenged the Chinese government to present compelling evidence to prove its charges against Tohti and to respect its own laws.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, no one in China is safe from the government,” said UHRP Director Alim Seytoff in a statement. “Outspoken or silent, pro-government or anti-government, moderate or extreme, it is of no concern to the Chinese Communist Party."
"If you displease the leadership in China for any reason, you’ll quickly find yourself in trouble. The government, through its police force, will not hesitate to trump up charges in order for the courts it controls to rubber stamp guilt and a harsh sentence," he said. "The case of Ilham Tohti shows there is no space for constructive Uyghur dissent in China.”
Last month, global rights group Amnesty International released an "urgent action" alert calling for pressure on Chinese authorities to release Tohti, labeling him a prisoner of conscience.
Four of Tohti's students at Beijing's Central University for Nationalities detained on the same day of his arrest have been released, while another four remain in custody, Amnesty International said.
The group issues "urgent action" notices for activists it considers at risk of being disappeared by the authorities or those who could face ill-treatment or torture when their location is unknown.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA's Uyghur Service, by Wei Ling and Yang Jian for the Cantonese Service, and by Tang Qiwei for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie, Ping Chen and Enver Uyghur. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.