CAIRO – Chinese police have detained a prominent Beijing-based Uighur economist and university profession, known as an outspoken critic of Beijing's harsh policies against Uighur Muslims in far western China district of Xinjiang.
"Ilham [Tohti] is suspected of breaking the law,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters, The Guardian reported on Thursday, January 16.
"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."
Tohti, an economics professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was taken by almost 30 policemen during a raid on his home Wednesday. The information was passed on by Tohti's wife, Guzaili Nu'er, who said police also confiscated phones and computer equipment from the home.
"I trust my husband. He didn't do anything unlawful," Nu'er told Reuters in a telephone interview from their home, which was guarded by police.
"All he has done is write detailed articles researching the population in Xinjiang. There's nothing else to it."
Hours before his detention, Tohti wrote in a post on his mobile social media account: "The Uighur people have become outsiders in the development of their own homeland and survival.
"It is here that the people's anger begins to grow. Uighur people need an avenue to express their aspirations and protect their rights."
The raid on Tohti’s home is not the first to target the prominent Beijing-based Uighur economist.
Last November, he accused state security agents of threatening to kill him for speaking to foreign reporters.
Uighur Muslims are a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million in the northwestern Xinjiang region.
Xinjiang, which activists call East Turkestan, has been autonomous since 1955 but continues to be the subject of massive security crackdowns by Chinese authorities.
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of religious repression against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in the name of counter terrorism.
Though Tohti was protected in the past by his status, his arrest followed growing criticism for China's heavy-handed policies in the western Xinjiang region.
"I think the outlook is pretty much set now … I think it means he is going to jail,” Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian.
"There was increasing pressure on him and he touched on very, very sensitive issues by challenging official accounts of incidents both in Xinjiang and Tiananmen."
Bequelin said Tohti could face charges of inciting separatism, an offence that can carry a life sentence.
"Tohti himself is clearly not a separatist. His position has always been to try to advise the central government of Beijing to look at the actual situation in an objective, non-politicized way … He is not a political figure or activist," he added.
Since 2001, China has conducted a sweeping security crackdown in Xinjiang, further repressing Uighur culture, religious tradition and language.
Xinjiang has been the scene of numerous incidents of unrest in recent years, with the most notable in July 2009 which left nearly 200 people dead.
Chinese authorities have convicted about 200 people, mostly Uighurs, over the riots and sentenced 26 of them to death.
Muslims accuses the government of settling millions of ethnic Han in their territory with the ultimate goal of obliterating its identity and culture.
Analysts say the policy of transferring Han Chinese to Xinjiang to consolidate Beijing's authority has increased the proportion of Han in the region from five percent in the 1940s to more than 40 percent now.
Beijing views the vast region of Xinjiang as an invaluable asset because of its crucial strategic location near Central Asia and its large oil and gas reserves.
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