China slaps separatism charges on Uighur blogger

New York, February 26, 2014–Chinese authorities should immediately release a Uighur blogger and academic who has been charged with separatism after being held incommunicado and without charge since January 15, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Ilham Tohti’s wife, Guzaili Nu’er, said she was told of the arrest on Tuesday and that her husband was at a detention center in China’s far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, about 2,000 miles away from their home in Beijing, according to reports. This was the first time Guzaili Nu’er had learned of her husband’s whereabouts or the official accusations against him since he was picked up from his home by police.

Tohti’s lawyer, Li Fangping, told Reuters that if convicted of separatism, Tohti could face between 10 years and life in prison, or even a death sentence. Li has not been allowed to meet with Tohti during his time in custody, the reports said.

The Xinjiang Public Security Bureau released a statement last month, accusing Tohti of fomenting ethnic hatred through Uighurbiz, the website he founded several years ago, according to news reports. The statement said that the website “concocted, distorted and hyped up” acts of ethnic bloodshed. The website has been shut down since his detention, according to reports.

Tohti, who also lectures on economics at a Beijing university, is a member of the Uighur minority, a large Muslim group in China’s northwest. He has frequently questioned the Chinese government’s ethnic minority policies but has not advocated for Uighur separatism, reports said. Tohti, who has often been critical of China’s treatment of Uighurs, expressed concern on his website about increased pressure on Uighurs after a deadly attack in October in Beijing that authorities have blamed on Uighur separatists, according to reports.

Ongoing clashes have erupted over the years in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, an area bordering ex-Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India that China considers to be of strategic importance. Separatist activities are seen as a serious offense in the country.

“The arrest of Ilham Tohti is another reminder of China’s aggressive reaction to critical ethnic minority voices, and shows how vague state security laws can be abused to silence journalists at any time,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. “Chinese authorities should drop the charges against Tohti and release him immediately.”

On February 7, Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-sponsored radio network, aired an interview recorded on July 24, 2013 that Tohti asked to be publicized if he were to be detained in the future. In the interview, he said, “I have relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uighurs. … I am almost confident that the Chinese government is trying to get rid of me this time.”

Local and international human rights groups have expressed concern over Tohti’s welfare. Chinese citizens have begun an online petition calling for Tohti’s immediate release.

In 2009, Tohti was questioned about Uighurbiz and was detained for more than six weeks, CPJ research shows. Several bloggers affiliated with Uighurbiz have been given long jail terms, including Gheyret Niyaz, a contributor, who is serving a 15-year sentence. CPJ documented at least 32 journalists in prison, many of them ethnic Uighurs, in China when it conducted its annual census on December 1.