ANKARA—Chinese authorities have barred a leading ethnic Uyghur economist based, in Beijing, from attending an academic conference in Turkey, along with four other Uyghur academics from the Xinjiang regional capital, Urumqi, organizers say.
“We invited four scholars from Urumqi, six from Beijing—and now only four scholars from Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities are joining the conference now,” Alimjan Inayet, the organizer of an international panel on Turkic culture at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey, said.
“We were surprised when we heard the restriction. We knew of Chinese officials’ sensitivity to political subjects, but this conference, as indicated by the title, is unrelated to politics.”
Ilham Tohti, an outspoken economist who has often clashed openly with the Chinese authorities, had received a Turkish visa and permission to attend from Central Nationalities University in Beijing, where he teaches, Inayet said.
Tohti was to arrive in Turkey on April 17, but police came to his home on April 15 and warned him against attending, Inayet said in an interview.
Four scholars based in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), were also warned against attending, he said.
Repeated calls to Ilham Tohti’s home number rang unanswered on Monday.
The identities of the other four Uyghur scholars barred from leaving the country weren't immediately available.
Tohti had already sent the text of his speech to the conference, and it addressed the role of energy in economic relations between Xinjiang and Central Asia, Inayet said.
“We are so sad about the event, because he was to be a very important speaker—most attendees at the conference expected to see him and listen to his speech.”
According to Qeyser Ozhun, president of the International Uyghur PEN Center, Tohti was also blocked last October from attending a PEN International conference in Norway, when police stopped him from obtaining a Norwegian visa in Beijing.
In August, soon after deadly clashes between majority Han and minority Uyghurs in Urumqi, Tohti was released without charge after he was detained for allegedly promoting separatism, but he said police then visited his home to warn him he could still be tried and executed.
Tohti’s blog, Uyghur Online, publishes in Chinese and Uyghur and is widely seen as a moderate, intellectual Web site addressing social issues. Authorities have closed it on several previous occasions.
Uyghur Online was specifically targeted, along with exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, in a July 5 speech by the governor of Xinjiang, Nur Bekri, as an instigator of the clashes.
Tohti has said he was interrogated repeatedly and accused of separatism after he spoke out in March against Chinese policies in Xinjiang, particularly the disproportionately high unemployment there among Uyghurs compared with Han Chinese.
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the XUAR in northwestern China.
Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in July 2009 in rioting that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
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 blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Original reporting by Erkin Tarim. Translated from the Uyghur by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.