Chinese authorities have extended a travel ban on an outspoken Uyghur professor to include members of his family and have stepped up surveillance on the man’s Beijing home since the New Year.
Ilham Tohti, an economist at Beijing’s Central Nationalities University, said he had been approached by Public Security Bureau police before the new year and handed a document which said that no one, including his wife and children, would be allowed to leave the capital.
The ban includes his daughter, Jewher, who has successfully applied for a U.S. student visa and for whom he had already bought a plane ticket to travel to America.
“I’m very sad for my daughter because she has already said goodbye to all her friends, classmates, and professors. She was ready to go, but now she can’t,” Tohti said in a Feb. 8 interview.
“I wanted her to return to school, but she doesn’t want to. She is embarrassed and upset because she feels that I am responsible for her troubles.”
Tohti was informed by authorities last May that he would be banned from travel outside of Beijing, including to his hometown in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), at least until the end of the year.
But the December visit by security police marked the first time that ban had been extended to his family.
The new ban comes amidst a period of increased surveillance on the professor’s home, which Tohti said had left him “exhausted.”
“If I was in jail, it would be better than what I am experiencing now,” he said.
The interview with Tohti was the first in over a month. Repeated calls to his cell phone since before the new year resulted in a message saying his number had been disconnected.
The professor acknowledged that his phone had been disconnected, saying it had been “broken,” although he did not elaborate.
“My SIM card has been transferred to another phone,” Tohti said, referring to the chip that assigns a cell phone its number.
“This is my number, but you are talking to me on a phone that someone else owns.”
Tohti said that his e-mail access had also been disabled, adding that he had tried to send a greeting to an RFA reporter before the new year, but was unable to do so.
Tohti’s website, Uyghur Online, on which he publishes articles about Uyghur issues, has been under near-constant attack by hackers during this time. It is inaccessible within China and only available for short spells abroad.
“I have already finished 20 articles, but I have not published them because the website is experiencing problems. They are all about the economy in Xinjiang and Uyghur issues, which the government does not like.”
‘Someone is with me’
Tohti seemed to suggest that he was being watched even during the course of the phone call and said that he might be in danger.
When asked why he decided to accept the interview, he responded that the authorities did not intimidate him and that it was important for someone to speak out about the treatment of the Uyghur people in China.
“If I say something, they may arrest and kill me. If I don’t say anything, they may do the same thing. So why shouldn’t I say something?”
“If someday they arrest me and take me to jail, please write about me. I want the world to know about me and the world to understand what is happening to the Uyghurs.”
After speaking for about five minutes, Tohti indicated that he would need to end the conversation.
“Right now someone is with me. I have a lot of things to tell you, but I’m looking at his face and he is very angry. Maybe we can speak another time later,” he said before hanging up.
Calls to his cell phone over the following two days resulted in a message that his number had been disconnected.
Tohti’s students, who are currently on a one-month winter break that is due to end within the week, said they had not been able to reach him by telephone and were anxious to learn whether he would return to teach classes.
Ilham Tohti has been under close scrutiny since ethnic riots rocked the XUAR's capital Urumqi two years ago.
The July 5, 2009 violence left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
Tohti, his wife, and his two young sons were taken by Chinese authorities to a resort on the southern island of Hainan just before the Noble Peace Prize ceremony on Dec. 9, 2010 and held for about a week during which they faced intense questioning.
Beijing had clamped down on dissidents and friends of Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, the jailed 2010 Nobel Prize recipient, ahead of the ceremony after attacking the Nobel committee for honoring a "criminal."
Uyghur Online publishes in Chinese and Uyghur and is widely seen as a moderate, intellectual website addressing social issues. Authorities have closed it on several previous occasions.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Reported and translated by Mihray Abdilim of RFA's Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.