The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) slammed Chinese authorities Thursday over the arbitrary detention of outspoken ethnic minority Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, saying it signaled President Xi Jinping's new hardline approach in the troubled Xinjiang region.
A day after the professor at Beijing's Central University for Nationalities was dragged away from his home in the Chinese capital by dozens of police, the U.S. State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about his detention together with at least six of his students.
Tohti, who has been critical of official policy in Xinjiang, the homeland of China's Muslim Uyghur population, was detained on suspicion of "breaking the law," the Chinese government said.
Tohti's wife Guzelnur said that his elderly mother—who was detained together with him but has since been released—has fallen ill following the trauma she suffered when police stormed into their home and bundled them away.
"Ilham Tohti's mom is very sick now," Guzelnur told RFA's Uyghur Service. "His two [young] sons are unable to sleep," as they miss their father, she said.
Police also took away Tohti's computers and 38 bags of documents belonging to him.
His detention underscores the government's increasing hardline stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where a series of deadly riots had been reported the past year, according to the WUC, a key Uyghur exile organization.
It came only a few weeks after a reported “landmark” speech by President Xi Jinping in which he outlined his and the state’s new strategy for Xinjiang following a "turbulent year" for the Uyghurs, WUC President Rebiya Kadeer said in a statement.
"As outlined [in state media], the policies seemingly point to a new hardline approach in the region," she said.
“Policies prior to this policy shift were already bringing Uyghurs in East Turkestan to breaking point, as clearly evidenced in the scores of killings this year by the Chinese police—I dread to think of the desperation to which they will be subjected now," she said.
Xinjiang is referred to as East Turkestan by most Uyghurs. The region had come under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
"With the arrest of Ilham, the purge is now underway,“ Kadeer said, adding that she was concerned that the scholar would be slapped with "bogus" charges in the absence of legitimate legal representation.
To be dealt with 'in accordance with the law.'
The Chinese government said Tohti would be dealt with "in accordance with the law."
"Ilham is suspected of breaking the law," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily news briefing Thursday. "The public security organs have detained him in accordance with the law. The relevant departments will now deal with him in accordance with the law."
The State Department said Tohti's detention "appears to be part of a disturbing pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions."
"We call on Chinese authorities to immediately account for the whereabouts of Mr. Tohti and his students and guarantee Mr. Tohti and his students the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China's international human rights commitments, including the freedom of expression," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Tohti has been detained numerous times previously as a result of his advocacy.
In a message to a reporter with RFA's Uyghur service on Wednesday, Tohti sent what appeared to be a distress message via the mobile text and voice messaging communication service WeChat.
"The situation is very severe; I am in a bad situation," he wrote.
There were no further messages.
'Very dangerous position'
Tsering Woeser, a prominent Tibetan writer and friend, said Tohti told her a week ago that he had heard the authorities in Xinjiang had told Beijing police that they wanted to arrest him, but later heard that Beijing didn't approve it, Reuters news agency reported.
"At that time, he said that he felt he was in a very dangerous position," Woeser said.
Tohti's wife Guzelnur said she had been trying to reach Tohti's friends, including lawyers, to find out where he is being detained and his condition amid concerns he may have been beaten in custody.
"My husband just speaks about the plight of the Uyghurs and their rights. As his wife, I am very proud of Ilham Tohti," she said.
In February 2013, Tohti was prevented from leaving China to take up a year-long university position in the United States.
Tohti also runs a moderate Uyghur Online website to discuss social issues involving Uyghur-Han Chinese relations, in articles published in both Chinese and Uyghur.
His website is hosted overseas but has been attacked in recent days and is currently inaccessible
Reported by Mihray Adilim and Gulchehre Abduqeyum for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Mihray Adilim and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.