UPDATED at 10:07 A.M. on 2017-07-28
One of the top leaders of a prominent Uyghur exile association was detained at the behest of China’s government by a special unit of the Italian police while preparing to speak about restrictions his ethnic group faces at a press conference in Rome, he said following his release on Wednesday.
At around 11:45 a.m., general secretary of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress Dolkun Isa was approached by 15-20 plainclothes members of the Divisione Investigazioni Generali e Operazioni Speciali (DIGOS) while walking with colleagues to the Italian Senate, he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
The officers, who were holding a photo of Isa, stopped him at the gate of the senate building and asked him to accompany them for an identification check, he said.
Isa informed the officers that he was due to speak at a noon press conference at the senate building co-organized by his group the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and Italy’s Nonviolent Radical Party, and hosted by Italian Senator Luigi Compagna, but the officers loaded him into a car and took him to a nearby police station.
While en route to the station, Isa, who is a German national, informed his German lawyer and the German authorities of his detention by cellphone, he said.
The DIGOS police checked Isa’s ID, took his photo and fingerprints, and eventually released him after 3:00 p.m., saying they would run his information against a database with the International Police Organization (Interpol), an intergovernmental organization that facilitates global police cooperation.
When Isa demanded to know why he had been detained, the DIGOS officers informed him that they had acted on a request from China, which routinely objects to political activities by ethnic Uyghurs living in exile from their traditional homeland in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Interpol had issued an international alert on Isa several years ago based on what he called a “politically motivated and baseless request” by the Chinese government, and the alert was later rejected by German authorities, who viewed it as a “political warrant,” he told the DIGOS officers.
In November last year, China’s Deputy Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei was elected president of Interpol, Isa told the officers, and asking Interpol to run a check on his background “is like asking the Chinese government” to do so. The officers informed Isa that they intend to proceed with the Interpol check.
Isa told RFA after his release that he was treated well while in custody and expressed gratitude to the German government for its intervention in his detention. He also thanked members of the Italian Senate, the Nonviolent Radical Party, the UNPO and the WUC for their concern.
But he condemned what he called the “nefarious influence of the Chinese government” on democratic Europe and said it must stop.
“[Nations of] the free world should not allow China to interfere in their internal affairs and let China use Interpol as an instrument to achieve its illegitimate objectives,” he said.
“China can never silence my voice or stop my peaceful human rights activism on behalf of the long-suffering Uyghur people in East Turkestan,” he added, referring to the name of a short-lived Uyghur republic that the Chinese government now administers as Xinjiang.
“I know China will continue to demonize me and attempt to prevent me from speaking out about its crimes committed against the peace-loving Uyghur people … but I will not stop until the Uyghurs can enjoy democracy and freedom.”
Isa’s detention came less than three months after he was removed from a United Nations forum in New York by security guards without explanation on April 26. Two days later, he was denied a new badge to be able to re-enter the forum, to which he had duly registered.
Isa told RFA at the time that he believed Chinese pressure on the U.N. had led to his removal.
In May, a coalition of human rights groups and organizations representing minority peoples around the world issued a letter condemning the incident, calling it an expression of “domination” by an unnamed U.N. member state.
“It is very worrying to witness once again the domination exercised by states within the UN system,” UNPO General Secretary Marino Busdachin said at the time, in an apparent reference to China, where Uyghurs in Xinjiang complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by the country’s ruling Communist Party.
Busdachin called Isa’s removal from an event organized by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) especially troubling, as the forum provides a space for indigenous peoples to voice their concerns and recommendations.
In their letter, the coalition of rights groups and minority organizations demanded that the UNPFII Secretariat “provide a full account of the causes of this incident” and insisted that “the rights of indigenous people’s representatives to express themselves in this arena be unconditionally respected in the future.”
Reported by and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified a forum Dolkun Isa was denied reentry to as being hosted by the UNPO.