HONG KONG—A prominent Beijing-based economist and member of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority has been 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.
Ilham Tohti, a professor at Beijing’s Central Nationalities University, said his cell phone resumed service Saturday and he was released after more than one month in custody.
But he said police knocked on his door late Monday to warn him against speaking out against the government’s handling of deadly July 5 riots that pitted mainly Muslim Uyghurs against majority Han Chinese in Urumqi, capital of China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
“They told me I could soon be sentenced—be sentenced to death, be 'dealt with,'” Tohti said.
Tohti said that one police officer remained in his home and stood by his side as he spoke with RFA in a telephone interview.
“I did not want to see what happened in Xinjiang on July 5. Ordinary citizens must be left alone to go on with their lives…I do not harbor any conspiracies, but I want to firmly defend the legal rights of the Uyghur people,” he said.
Tohti said he had been detained partly in his home and in a hotel “somewhere near Beijing” for two weeks, during which time three or four policemen “chatted with me endlessly” both day and night.
“I was unable to tell day from night. My head was spinning [from the questioning]…I spent more than 20 hours a day with them,” Tohti said.
Tohti said he was never treated inhumanely during his detention, calling his captors “courteous” and “civilized,” even while he knew the “procedure was illegal.”
“[They produced] nothing to indicate what they were doing was in accordance with the law,” he said, adding that he was never accused of committing a specific crime.
“But since the chatting was done with the secret police, it definitely had something to do with national security and politics,” Tohti said.
Tohti said his captors “expressed particular concern” about the July 5 riots and an earlier clash between Han and Uyghur factory workers in China’s southern Guangdong province that sparked the Urumqi unrest.
“They were concerned about what I had said.”
‘This is a political issue’
Tohti went missing after he reported police had summoned him from his Beijing home following the July 5 riots in Urumqi.
He was detained after writing about the violence on his Web site, Uyghur Online.
Chinese officials responded to inquiries about Tohti during his detention by saying that he had left Beijing with his family for a summer vacation, which he has denied.
Tohti said that although he had been released after an investigation determined he had not violated the law or attempted to incite violence, he remains concerned that authorities will continue to monitor his actions.
“They say I am cleared of any problems, but they do not call the shots. This is a political issue. I don’t know what the higher-ups are thinking. By ‘higher-ups’ I mean leaders at the highest level,” he said.
Tohti said that his online activities have been carefully scrutinized by the government and that members of the Uyghur Online staff had been summoned by authorities for questioning as early as March this year.
“We do not know the whereabouts of the majority of the editors and staff of Uyghur Online,” Tohti said.
He said one Uyghur service reporter for the official China Central Television (CCTV) had been missing for more than a month.
“He’s been detained. That has been confirmed. But it was not done according to the proper procedure of the law,” Tohti said.
Tohti said he was unsure how Uyghur Online would operate after his detention.
“It used to be like Global Times,” he said, referring to another China-based news Web site. “We yielded to the government.”
“After all, China is moving ahead. We should respect one another. There should be a greater effort to achieve social justice.”
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.
Original reporting by Ding Xiao for RFA’s Mandarin service and by Ho Shan for RFA’s Cantonese service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated by Jennifer Chou and Ho Shan. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.