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U.S. and EU Speak Out on China’s Detention of Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti.

Ilham Tohti (Source: RFA).

Prominent Uighur economics professor and dissident Ilham Tohti (Uighur: ئىلھام توختى‎, Chinese: 伊力哈木土赫提) was detained by police in Beijing on January 15, according to multiple reports. Also detained were at least six of Tohti’s students. Tohti’s family has not been informed of his whereabouts or the nature of the charges against him.

The U.S. State Department has issued a statement calling “on Chinese authorities to immediately account for the whereabouts of Mr. Tohti and his students and guarantee Mr. Tohti and his students the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments, including the freedom of expression.” The European Union’s ambassador to China also called on China to substantiate its charges against Tohti and to inform Tohti’s family of his whereabouts. China responded to these calls in the usual manner by accusing the U.S. and EU of “interference in China’s internal affairs.”

A professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, Tohti has been an outspoken critic of Chinese policy in the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang in northwest China. According to Tohti’s wife, Guzaili Nu’er, Tohti was arrested when 30 to 40 police officers raided the couple’s Beijing apartment. Tohti’s mother was also briefly detained, and police removed computers, flash drives, cellphones, books, papers, and students’ assignments from Tohti’s home.

Tohti “is suspected of breaking the law,” a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry told reporters at a press conference following Tohti’s arrest, “The public security organs have detained him in accordance with the law. The relevant departments will now deal with him in accordance with the law.”

“China’s law is sacred and inviolable,” the foreign ministry added in a thinly-veiled massage to the U.S. and EU, “We oppose any country or party using human rights as a pretext to criticize another country’s normal law enforcement and interfere in its internal politics and judicial sovereignty.”

Tohti is noted for his outspoken criticism of Chinese discrimination against the Uighur minority in his native Xinjiang. Uighurs have enjoyed few of the benefits of economic development in Xinjiang, and face frequent discrimination in jobs and other areas in favor of Han Chinese who have settled in the region. As in the case of Tibet, Uighurs in Xinjiang have become a minority in their own homeland. “The Uighur people have become outsiders in the development of their own homeland and survival,” Tohti wrote in a microblog post just hours before his arrest, “It is here that the people’s anger begins to grow. Uighur people need an avenue to express their aspirations and protect their rights.”

Tohti has been detained and placed under house arrest before, but authorities have recently stepped up their harassment of Tohti and his family. In November 2013, Tohti said that public security agents rammed his car and threatened to kill his wife and children. “I’ve been monitored, kept under house arrest and followed by the police for many years, but I’ve never seen public security agents behave this way,” Tohti said following that incident, “To threaten children just isn’t human.” In February 2013 Tohti was detained at the Beijing airport and prevented from leaving China to take up a one-year position as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, prompting criticism from the U.S. government.

Ilham Tohti may be followed at Twitter (@Ilham_Tohti), at FreeWeibo (@伊力哈木土赫提), and at his website ( The World Uyghur Congress is also closely following Tohti’s case.



Mark C. Eades

Mark C. Eades is an Asia-based writer, educator, and independent researcher. Located in Shanghai, China from 2009 to 2015, he now splits his time between the United States and various locations in Asia. He has spent a total of seven years in China since his first visit in 1991, and has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai. He is also widely traveled throughout East and Southeast Asia. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University with extensive coursework in Asia-Pacific studies. His previous publications include articles on China and Sino-US relations in U.S. News & World Report, Asia Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and Atlantic Community. Twitter: @MC_Eades