Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have frozen the bank accounts of a detained outspoken ethnic minority Uyghur scholar, leaving his family with no money to live on, according to his wife.
Ilham Tohti, a professor at the Beijing's Central University for Nationalities, was detained in January on separatism charges in the Chinese capital, where he had lived, and was brought to Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi.
His wife Guzelnur, left with care of the couple's two young children, has recently been unable to withdraw any money from their bank account.
"I went to the ATM to withdraw money last week and I was unable to get anything,” Guzelnur told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
She said she inquired about the matter with the bank and was told that the account had been frozen on the orders of the Xinjiang authorities.
“I spoke to Ilham’s lawyer and he told me this is illegal because Ilham continues to receive his salary from the university and the family depends very much on his income.”
Guzelnur is reliant on her monthly salary of some 2,000 yuan (U.S. $320) from her job in the library of the Beijing's Nationalities University to feed her young family and to pay her two sons' school fees, she said.
She said she had to pay 600 yuan (nearly U.S. $100) for her older son’s primary school fees and 1,100 yuan (nearly U.S. $180) for day care for her other son and also had to support her daughter who is studying at Indiana University in the United States.
She told RFA’s Cantonese Service in an interview on Thursday that her credit card had already been declined before the bank account was frozen.
Guzelnur said the family is now in "economic difficulties."
Lawyer unable to meet with Tohti
Guzelnur said Tohti’s Beijing-based lawyer Li Fangping would travel to Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi to inquire about the frozen bank account and also to continue to push the authorities for him to be allowed to talk to his client.
Li has been barred from meeting his client although the charges facing Tohti are serious. Rights groups are concerned that he could face torture in custody.
Tohti, who has spoken out for greater autonomy for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), was dragged away from his home in Beijing by dozens of police on Jan. 15.
He was formally arrested on Feb. 20 by the Xinjiang capital Urumqi municipal police department on separatism charges.
The authorities also formally arrested three of Tohti's students on charges of "splittism" and "revealing state secrets," while the fate of two other students remains unknown.
Authorities informed the families of Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Tursun and Abdukeyum Ablimit — who have been in custody for more than a month — by telephone on Feb. 24 of the charges against the trio and confirmed that they were also being held in Urumqi.
It remains unclear whether the government intends to prosecute Tohti for the state security crime of "separatism," which can result in the death penalty, or for the lesser crime of "inciting separatism."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has said that there is no publicly-available evidence of Tohti having engaged in any form of speech or behavior that could be construed by any objective standard as inciting violence or unlawful action.
“Inciting separatism," which carries penalties ranging from less than five years to 15 years maximum, is overwhelmingly targeted at peaceful dissenters and lawful critics of government policies.
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.
He has spoken out for better implementation of China's regional autonomy laws in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA's Uyghur Service and Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Mihray Abdilim. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.