The European Union joined the United States in criticizing China for the detention of outspoken ethnic minority Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti as Beijing maintained its silence on his whereabouts and the specific charges he faces.
The Chinese government said the professor at Beijing's Central University for Nationalities was "criminally detained" from his home on Wednesday because he was "under suspicion of committing crimes and violating the law" but it did not give any details.
Tohti's wife Guzelnur said Friday that about a dozen Chinese policemen were on guard outside their Beijing residence, preventing relatives, friends, and students from visiting her and her two young sons, and trailing them wherever they went.
"We are like under house arrest," she told RFA's Uyghur Service. "This morning when I drove my sons to school, a police car with four men followed us."
Guzelnur said she had managed to get a lawyer in Beijing to help defend Tohti, who has been critical of official policy in Xinjiang, the homeland of China's mostly Muslim ethnic minority Uyghur population and where a series of deadly riots had been reported the past year.
His detention underscored the Chinese government's increasing hardline stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, some rights groups say.
A day after the U.S. State Department urged Beijing to account for the whereabouts of Tohti—and at least six of his students who were also taken into custody—and to guarantee their rights, the European Union on Friday voiced concern over the detention.
Markus Ederer, the European Union ambassador to China, criticized growing curbs on human rights in China, citing the case of Tohti and several other activists who also have been detained, including anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong, as well as Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has never been charged with any crime but has been under house arrest for years.
Ederer, who was concluding his term as ambassador Friday to take up a new position as German vice foreign minister, said he had called on the Chinese authorities to treat Tohti in line with Chinese legislation by substantiating the charges leveled against him, "which so far has not happened."
He also wanted Beijing to inform Tohti's family about his whereabouts.
"If these charges cannot be substantiated, release him," Ederer said, according to Agence France-Presse.
The U.S. State Department on Thursday said Tohti's detention was "part of a disturbing pattern" of arrests of lawyers, activists, journalists "and others who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions."
But China seemed annoyed by the criticism from the U.S. and EU. Without naming them, it said it was against any interference in its internal affairs.
"China's law is sacred and inviolable," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing in Beijing,
"We oppose any country or party using human rights as a pretext to criticize another country's normal law enforcement and interfere
in its internal politics and judicial sovereignty," Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
A Uyghur human rights group in Washington meanwhile said that Tohti’s detention was part of China's broad strategy to drown the voices of the minority Uyghurs.
The detention "demonstrates the Chinese state is prepared to break its own laws in order to follow through on a new government strategy to further tighten security measures aimed at Uyghurs and silence remaining voices of dissent against Chinese policies in East Turkestan," the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said in a statement.
Xinjiang is referred to as East Turkestan by many Uyghurs. The region came under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
“The detention of Mr. Tohti should sound alarm bells around the world regarding China’s zero tolerance approach to Uyghur freedom of speech,” said UHRP Director Alim Seytoff.
“No Uyghur is safe from the unchecked power of the Chinese state," he said. "Uyghurs across East Turkestan are routinely picked up by the Chinese police, afforded no due process and then frequently disappear into China’s opaque penal system."
"That someone with Ilham Tohti’s profile is subjected to the same treatment is an indication the Chinese authorities are ready to intensify repression of Uyghurs," he said
Seytoff said "there is a strong moral case for the international community to publicly challenge Chinese officials over Mr. Tohti’s case and the conditions prevailing in East Turkestan.”
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.
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 for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Mihray Adilim. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.