31 January 2014 – RAN 03/14
CHINA: Uyghur PEN member, writer and academic Ilham Tohti detained; fears for safety.
PEN International is seriously concerned for the well-being of Uyghur writer, academic and Uyghur PEN member, Ilham Tohti, who was arrested at his home on 15 January 2014 and remains detained incommunicado. While Tohti has yet to be formally charged, the authorities have announced that he is under investigation for promoting Xinjiang’s independence and abetting separatists through his website Uyghur Online. PEN believes he is held for peacefully exercising his right to free expression and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.
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Send appeals to Chinese Embassies:
- Protesting the arrest of Uyghur writer and academic Ilham Tohti, and calling for his immediate and unconditional release;
- Urging the authorities to reveal where he is being held and seeking assurances of his well-being;
- Protesting the renewed crackdown on Chinese Uyghurs who criticise the government;
- Reminding the Chinese authorities that Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for freedom of speech and that as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for freedom of legitimate expression, the right not to be arbitrarily detained and the right to a fair trial, they are obliged to “refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose”.
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His Excellency Xi Jinping
President of the People’s Republic of China
On 15 January 2014, Uyghur writer and academic, Ilham Tohti, was arrested by authorities at his home in Beijing. His whereabouts are unknown and he has yet to be formally charged. According to reports, Tohti’s lawyer, Li Fangping was turned away when he sought information as to Tohti’s place of detention. Li has reportedly not been allowed to register to defend him. In a public statement by the Bureau of Public Security for Urumqi it is claimed that Tohti is under investigation for the promotion of separatism, alleging that he had recruited followers through Uyghur Online – a website he founded in 2006. Tohti had reportedly recently expressed fears on Uyghur Online about increased pressure on Uyghurs following the Tiananmen Square car bomb attack in October 2013 (see below for more details).
PEN International first began working on Tohti’s case in 2009 when he spent over six weeks in detention after he spoke out about the ethnic unrest which broke out in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), on 5 July 2009. Since then Tohti has suffered regular harassment by the Chinese authorities. At least four times in 2013 Tohti was reportedly prevented from leaving his home and contacting people outside. Visitors to his home were required to register with the police outside, most recently in July around the time the US-China human rights dialogue was concluding. In February 2013, Tohti was prevented from travelling to the United States to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University.
PEN is concerned by an apparent renewed crackdown on dissent and criticism of Chinese government policies by Chinese Uyghurs. On 15 July 2013, Mutellip Imin, an ethnic Uyghur, student and volunteer with Uyghur Online was detained by police at Beijing International Airport as he attempted to return to Turkey, where he is a student at university. Imin was reportedly held without charge for 79 days in his hometown outside of Hotan, Xinjiang. Released on 1 October, the police reportedly retained his passport – effectively barring him from returning to Turkey to continue his studies. Similarly, on 28 September 2013, Perhat Halmurat, editor of Uyghur Online, was reportedly taken into custody at Beijing International Airport on charges of “attempting to escape the country” as he was about to board a flight to Turkey where he had received a scholarship to study anthropology at Istanbul University. He was released 16 hours later following pressure from a number of prominent activists. Additionally, Hailaite Niyazi, also known as Gheyret Niyaz, former editor of Uyghur Online, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for “endangering national security” following his conviction on 23 July 2010. PEN International is seeking to confirm reports that at least four of Tohti’s students were arrested around the same time that Tohti was arrested in January 2014.
Born in Atush, Xinjiang, on 25 October 1969, Tohti is a prominent economics professor at Central University for Nationalities and an outspoken critic of China’s ethnic policies in the XUAR region. Tohti is a member of Uyghur PEN. In 2006, he founded Uyghur Online, a website designed to promote understanding between the Uyghur ethnic group and Han Chinese.
The XUAR region in north-west China is home to many Muslim Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, some of whom have waged a low-level separatist struggle for independence from Chinese rule for decades and where repressive government policies have led to severe economic deprivation amongst the Uyghur community and fomented ethnic tension between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. PEN International believes that the Chinese government has used the activities of armed opposition groups in the region as an excuse to suppress peaceful political and cultural expression.
The XUAR region has experienced several violent clashes in recent months, and its unrest has been linked to other attacks in China. On 28 October 2013, a fatal car crash and explosion in Tiananmen Square – which resulted in the deaths of two tourists leaving 38 others injured – was later attributed to members of a Uyghur separatist movement. The BBC estimates that more than 100 people have been killed in violent clashes in the XUAR region this year. On 19 December 2013, the Chinese government launched a new “grand strategic plan” for the XUAR, in which it pledged to make “maintaining social stability” the primary strategic goal within the XUAR.