Global advocacy group Amnesty International has released an “urgent action” alert calling for pressure on Chinese authorities to release detained ethnic minority Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, labeling him a prisoner of conscience and urging police to reveal his whereabouts.
Tohti, an outspoken economics professor who has not been heard from since his detention two weeks ago, is at risk of torture and other ill treatment, the group warned.
The Central University for Nationalities professor, who has spoken out for greater autonomy for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China’s far northwest, was dragged away from his home in the Beijing by dozens of police on Jan. 15.
Authorities said in a notice from the Urumqi public security bureau that he is being investigated for heading a separatist group that advocates violence to overthrow Chinese rule in the region, a charge dismissed as absurd by his wife and Uyghur exile groups.
“Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression,” the group’s statement said on Wednesday.
“He is at risk of torture or other ill treatment.”
Four of Tohti’s students at the Central University for Nationalities detained on the same day of his arrest have been released, while another four remain in custody, according to the statement.
The group normally issues “urgent action” notices for activists it considers at risk of being disappeared by the authorities or could face ill treatment while hidden from the public eye.
Reporters Without Borders
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has put out a similar call, raising concerns that Tohti may have been secretly transferred to a prison in Xinjiang.
“The public security bureau in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, has reported online that Ilham Tohti is accused of inciting separatism but no police station has been able to tell his family where he is being held,” Reporters Without Borders’s Asia-Pacific head Benjamin Ismail said.
“We deplore the use of methods that are illegal under both Chinese law and international standards. We call on the authorities to reveal where they are holding Tohti and to allow his lawyer and his family to visit him.”
Tohti’s Beijing-based lawyer Li Fangping traveled to Urumqi over the weekend to inquire about the professor’s whereabouts but returned without any clues, according to Tohti’s wife Guzelnur.
Guzelnur has been kept under strict surveillance since his disappearance, telling RFA Thursday there had been no let-up in her security detail for the start of the lunar new year festival.
Several police officers remained stationed outside the door of her home in Beijing, Guzelnur said, adding that she still had no news of her husband's whereabouts and remained concerned over his safety.
According to Guzelnur and other sources, several of Tohti’s students who were detained appear to have been taken to Xinjiang for questioning.
Well liked by students
Some of the professor’s students had helped run Tohti's Uyghur Online website, which publishes articles in both Chinese and Uyghur on social issues involving Uyghur-Han Chinese relations.
The overseas-hosted site has not been functioning since Tohti’s detention.
A close friend of one of the detained students who is now living in the U.S. but had sat in on several of Tohti’s lectures while visiting Beijing in recent years told RFA the professor had been well liked by his students.
Tohti had spoken to his students about “current realities” in Xinjiang and “played an important role in deepening understanding” across ethnic lines while taking a “peaceful approach” to resolving issues in the region, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He is a good teacher and is his students’ best friend,” he said.
“He advocated rule of law and fairness for the native Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”
Tohti has been detained numerous times previously as a result of his advocacy, and in February last year was prevented from leaving China to take up a year-long university position in the United States.
Uyghur human rights groups have said that Tohti’s recent detention is part of a broader strategy by Beijing to drown voices of minority Uyghurs and underscores China’s increasing hard-line stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where a series of deadly riots has been reported over the past year.
Reported by Mihray Adilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.