Several ethnic minority Uyghur university students detained by Chinese authorities on the same day outspoken Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was taken into custody in Beijing two weeks ago appear to have been taken to the remote Xinjiang region for questioning, according to Tohti's wife and sources.
"The family of one of the students has been informed by the authorities that he is being held in Urumqi," Guzelnur told RFA's Uyghur Service, referring to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region's capital.
She said the student, identified only as Perhat, had been pursuing a masters degree at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, where Tohti was a professor before his detention in the Chinese capital on Jan. 15.
"His [Perhat's] family is making preparations to go to Urumqi in a bid to see him after being informed by the authorities," Guzelnur said, adding that Perhat's hometown was in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), the capital of Xinjiang's Ili prefecture.
The family in Ghulja had received a letter from the Urumqi police informing about his detention in the Xinjiang capital.
Sources believe that at least four other students detained separately in the Chinese capital on Jan. 15 have been transferred to Xinjiang, the homeland of China's mostly Muslim ethnic minority Uyghur population, where a series of deadly riots has been reported over the past year.
Another Uyghur student, Mutellip Imin, who once worked as a volunteer for Tohti's website, was detained on the same date outside Hotan (Hetian) city in Xinjiang.
Imin, 24, had been detained previously in Beijing in July when he tried to return to his university in Istanbul and was held for 79 days. On his release, he had his passport confiscated by the authorities, barring him from traveling to Turkey.
Guzelnur said she had no news on her husband's whereabouts and remained concerned over his safety.
Tohti has not been formally charged, but Chinese authorities on Saturday said that he was being investigated for promoting Xinjiang's independence and abetting separatists.
The Bureau of Public Security for Urumqi said in an online statement that Tohti recruited followers through a website he founded to cause trouble, spread separatist thoughts, incite ethnic hatred, and engage in separatist activities.
It alleged that the scholar told students that Uyghurs should use violence and oppose the government as China opposed Japanese invaders during World War II.
But the U.S. State Department expressed concern over the charges leveled at Tohti and called for his immediate release.
"We are deeply concerned by reports that Chinese authorities have announced a list of offenses that the detained economics professor Ilham Tohti allegedly committed," a department spokesperson told RFA.
"We call on Chinese authorities to release Mr. Tohti and to guarantee him the protections and freedoms to which he is entitled under China's international human rights commitments, including the freedom of expression."
Uyghur human rights groups have said that Tohti’s detention is part of Beijing's broad strategy to drown the voices of the minority Uyghurs and underscores its increasing hard-line stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where a sweeping security crackdown may have led to about 100 killings since April—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
Reported by Mihray Adilim for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Mihray Adilim. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.