US Academic Close to Uyghur Scholar Barred From Entering China

By Richard Finney
Elliot Sperling (R) with Ilham Tohti in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener.

A U.S. academic said Monday that he has been barred from entering China and sent back to the United States, apparently because of his essays written online in support of jailed outspoken Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti.

Elliot Sperling—a friend and supporter of economics professor Tohti—said he was pulled out of line by passport inspectors after his arrival Saturday at Beijing airport, taken to a holding room, and questioned for an hour and half concerning his identity and professional work.

The Chinese authorities then canceled his tourist visa and put him back on the same plane on which he had arrived in Beijing.

“I was clearly on a blacklist,” Sperling, a professor of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University, told RFA in an interview on Monday.

“[T]hey gave me my passport with the visa crossed out and a boarding pass, and they put me back on the same airplane that I had come in on.”

“As I was being taken back to the plane, I asked [my police escort] ‘Why am I being sent back/’ and he said ‘I can’t tell you,’” Sperling said.

Though no reason was given for his expulsion from China, Sperling said, “I think it’s clear that this was because of my advocacy and my support for Ilham Tohti and the fact that I’ve been vocal about that.”

Dragged from home

Ilham Tohti was dragged away from his home in the Chinese capital by dozens of police on Jan. 15, and formally arrested on Feb. 20 on separatism charges, which the academic has dismissed as spurious.

Tohti was then sacked from the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing where he had been teaching for years, leaving his wife Guzelnur and their two young sons little to survive on as they struggle to cope with his disappearance.

Human rights groups have said that Tohti's jailing is part of Beijing's broad strategy to drown the voices of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, who call Xinjiang their homeland.

It also underscores Beijing's increasing hard-line stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.

China discusses Xinjiang issues only “in the context of terrorism, and specifically Islamist terrorism,” though, Sperling said, noting that Tohti has now been charged with crimes that could possibly carry the death penalty.

“I know Ilham. We’ve had many, many conversations. And these charges are ridiculous,” Sperling said.

Tohti has been detained numerous times previously as a result of his advocacy.

In February 2013, Tohti was 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.

"A lot of the problems started when he was detained at the airport en route to Indiana University, and subsequently he's not been allowed to leave China," Sperling said.

National, ethnic unity

Tohti’s lawyer Wang Yu, who met Tohti last month for the first time since his arrest, said the long-time advocate of Uyghur rights and outspoken critic of Chinese policies in the Xinjiang region has continually rejected the charges of separatism leveled against him.

"To judge from what he said, he shouldn't plead guilty to them. He doesn't support violent separatism, nor separatism in general. He is in favor of national and ethnic unity," she had told RFA.

Tohti had also said that he was denied food and given one and a half glasses of water for 10 days in March as an apparent punishment for failing to cooperate with authorities.

Sperling noted that in comparison, his own experience at the Beijing airport involved “just a bit of discomfort.”

“You know, I was detained at the airport for an hour and a half … and then I was sent back to the United States,” he said.

“But realistically speaking, when you think of what happens to people like Ilham Tohti, what happened to me is a joke.”


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