Advocate for Uighurs Seems to Have Foretold Detention
  • Thu, 02/20/2014 - 19:48

By ANDREW JACOBS
February 20, 2014, 7:16 am

Ilham Tohti, the Uighur intellectual who disappeared into the black hole of China’s security apparatus more than a month ago, appears to have prophesied his detention and what are expected to be charges of inciting ethnic separatism in the far western region of Xinjiang.

In a statement he gave to Radio Free Asia in July, Mr. Tohti sensed that the walls were closing in and that the authorities were growing increasingly unhappy with his outspoken advocacy for China’s 10 million Uighurs, a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking people whose tenuous coexistence with the nation’s ethnic Han majority has been fraying in recent months.

“I have realized that I don’t have too many good days ahead of me,” he told Radio Free Asia, which is financed by the United States government. “Therefore, I feel that it is necessary for me to leave a few words behind before I no longer have the ability to do so.”

 

The news service said it released a transcript of the interview after consulting his wife.

In his statement, Mr. Tohti, 44, sought to address hypothetical denouements of his detention, saying he would never sign a confession nor would he take his own life in custody. Citing a recent medical checkup by his employer, Minzu University, he described his health as trouble-free.

“If I do pass away in the near future, know that it is not because of natural illness and it certainly will not be suicide,” he said.

In the seven weeks since he was led away from his apartment by the police, Mr. Tohti’s family and friends have grown increasingly frantic. His lawyer, Li Fangping, has confronted a wall of silence from the authorities. The police have yet to issue warrants or legal papers, Mr. Li said, and they refuse to even say where he is being held. “The way this is being handled completely violates the law,” Mr. Li said. “They are trying to create an atmosphere of terror, and my guess is the authorities will try him in the court of public opinion.”

Mr. Tohti’s detention comes at a time of increasing violence in Xinjiang. In recent months, more than 100 Uighurs have been shot and killed by armed police officers or soldiers, among them 11 people killed last Friday during a clash in Aksu Prefecture. As with most such incidents, the state news media described the dead as terrorists motivated by Islamic extremism. Exile groups attribute much of the bloodshed to security forces who they say have been given a green light to use excessive force, including against unarmed protesters.

Learning the truth about such incidents is difficult. Except for the government version of events, the subject is off limits to the domestic news media. Foreign journalists cannot freely report in the region.

With most Uighur activists in jail, in exile or frightened into silence, Mr. Tohti was one of the few Chinese citizens willing to openly criticize the government policies he said were alienating young Uighurs: religious restrictions, education policies that favor Mandarin over the Uighur language and economic development that disproportionately benefits newly arrived Han migrants.

In a hint of what may await Mr. Tohti, the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau released a statement last month that accused him of fomenting ethnic hatred during classroom lectures and through Uighurbiz, the website he founded several years ago. The site, the statement said, “concocted, distorted and hyped up” acts of ethnic bloodshed.

In the statement prophesying his disappearance, Mr. Tohti reiterated his longstanding rejection of violence in the quest for greater Uighur autonomy, and insisted that he had no contact with extremist groups.

“The path I have pursued all along is an honorable and a peaceful path,” 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.”

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