Uyghur Scholar Taken Back Home

Chinese authorities bar him from leaving for the U.S. to take up a university post.

Ilham Tohti pauses before a classroom lecture in Beijing, June 12, 2010

Chinese authorities have prevented an outspoken ethnic Uyghur scholar from leaving for the United States to take up a post at Indiana University after detaining and interrogating him at the Beijing airport.

Ilham Tohti told RFA's Uyghur Service that he was taken back to his Beijing home late Saturday by Chinese security officers after being held and questioned at the airport for about eight hours.

His teenage daughter, who was to have accompanied him, was allowed to take the American Airlines flight to the U.S.

"I have been told that my daughter boarded a flight for the U.S.," said Ilham Tohti, a professor at the Central Minorities University in Beijing and a vocal critic of the Chinese government's treatment of the minority Uyghurs, most of whom live in the northwestern Xinjiang region and complain of discrimination by the country's majority ethnic Han Chinese.

It is not known why he was prevented from leaving the country to take up the post of visiting scholar at Indiana University.

U.S. authorities have issued him a J-1 visa, which is for "work- and study-based exchange visitor programs."  His daughter has a J-2 visa, usually issued to dependents of J-1 visa holders.

Detained several times

Ilham Tohti has been detained several times before, and he and his family have faced a number of restrictions in Beijing since July 2009 when deadly ethnic violence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese rocked Xinjiang region's capital Urumqi, leaving about 200 people dead.

He had told his friend via text messages earlier Saturday that he and his daugter were detained "as they were going through security checks" at the airport and were watched over by several policemen.

He was the founder of Uyghur Online, a moderate, intellectual website addressing social issues. It was shut down by authorities in 2009.

A new version of the site, which reports Xinjiang news and discusses Uyghur social issues, reopened last year and is hosted overseas and blocked by censors in China.

Ilham Tohti was taken away from Beijing to Urumqi and Atush, his hometown in the Xinjiang region, in October last year ahead of the 18th National Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese capital.

His six-year-old son was refused entry to primary school in Beijing last year.


Ilham Tohti told RFA in December that he was afraid that speaking out about Uyghur social issues in Xinjiang was negatively affecting his family’s life in Beijing in addition to his own.

In August, Chinese authorities interrogated the professor, warning him not to speak to foreign media or discuss religion online, after he alleged on his website that the authorities had sent armed forces to mosques in Xinjiang to monitor Muslims during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

In September 2011, the Central Minorities University cancelled a class taught by him on immigration, discrimination, and development in Xinjiang, where many Muslim Uyghurs chafe under Beijing's rule.

Ilham Tohti, who has called for implementation of regional autonomy laws in his home region, was also detained for two months following the July 2009 ethnic violence.

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 often link Uyghurs in Xinjiang to violent separatist groups but experts familiar with the region have said Beijing exaggerates what it calls a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest.

Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Jennifer Chou.


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