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(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately drop all charges against the Uighur economist Ilham Tohti and release him, Human Rights Watch said today. Tohti, a professor at Beijing’s Minzu University of China and the founder of a website focusing on Uighur issues, UighurOnline, was formally arrested for “separatism” on February 25, 2014.

“Ilham Tohti’s arrest is purely political and he should be released immediately,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director. “He remains at high risk of torture and ill-treatment as long as he is in custody.”

Tohti, who is originally from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), was taken into police custody in Beijing on January 15. The Xinjiang police quickly transferred Tohti to Urumqi, the capital of the XUAR. On January 25, the Urumqi Public Security Bureau issued an online statement accusing Tohti of having “engaged in separatist activities” and having “fanned ethnic hatred.” Yet the police and the judicial authorities refused to formally acknowledge anything about his case, including the fact of his detention, to his lawyer and his family.

On January 24 his wife finally received a formal notification that Tohti was criminally detained in Urumqi under “separatism” charges. Yet even after issuing this formal notification, the judicial authorities in Urumqi continue to stonewall all requests for access from his lawyer, in violation of the criminal procedure law. 

Earlier in January, the Urumqi State Security Bureau issued a statement claiming that “Ilham Tohti exploited his status as a teacher to recruit, entice and coerce people to form gangs, and to collude with ‘East Turkestan’ leaders in planning, organizing and assigning people to go abroad to join in separatist activities.”

That Tohti is being held incommunicado in detention while being charged with one of the most serious crimes under Chinese law considerably heightens his risk of being tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Torture of Uighur individuals accused of “separatism” in Xinjiang is endemic, and Tohti had previously pledged that he would never voluntarily sign confessions acknowledging that his positions constituted crimes under Chinese law.

There is no publicly-available evidence of Tohti having engaged in any form of speech or behavior that could be construed by any objective standard as inciting violence or unlawful action. While outspoken and critical of many policies carried out by the Chinese government in Xinjiang and towards the Uighur community, Tohti has always clearly stated in his writings and in the interviews he regularly gave to the foreign media that he opposed Uighur independence or separatism.

It is not yet clear whether the Xinjiang authorities intend to prosecute Tohti on the state security crime of “separatism” or for the lesser crime of “inciting separatism” (article 103 ofthe Criminal law). The former can result in the death penalty, and it is often reserved for cases in which the defendants are suspected of setting up clandestine organizations, such as political parties, or for those suspected of having committed or planning to commit acts of violence. “Inciting separatism,” which carries penalties ranging from “less than five years” to 15 years maximum, is overwhelmingly targeted at peaceful dissenters and lawful critics of government policies.
In a worrying precedent, Gheyret Niyaz, the administrator of the website created by Tohti, which focused on Uighur and Xinjiang issues, was sentenced in July 2010 to 15 years imprisonment on charges of “inciting separatism.” UighurOnline, which is hosted outside of China, was made inaccessible by repeated hacking attacks on the same day that Tohti was arrested.

“The charge against Professor Tohti suggests that Beijing's definition of separatism knows no bounds,” said Richardson. “And especially in a country that allows virtually no political rights or peaceful discussion of self-determination, arrests of peaceful critics is an increasingly incendiary tactic.”

Background on Xinjiang
Pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression justified by the government in the name of the “fight against separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism” continue to fuel rising tensions in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

In 2013, over one hundred people – Uighurs, Han, and other ethnicities – were killed in various incidents across the region, the highest death toll since the July 2009 Urumqi protests. In some cases, heavy casualties appear to have been the result of military-style assaults on groups preparing violent attacks, as in Bachu prefecture on April 23, and in Turfan prefecture on June 26. But in other cases security forces appear to have used lethal force against crowds of unarmed protesters.

Arbitrary arrest, torture, and “disappearance” of those deemed separatists are endemic and instill palpable fear in the population. In July, Ilham Tohti published an open letter to the government asking for an investigation into 34 disappearance cases he documented. Tohti was placed under house arrest several times and prevented from traveling abroad.

While the Chinese government has legitimate security concerns in the region, it continues to systematically conflate peaceful dissent with the use or advocacy of anti-state violence and refuses to acknowledge any legitimacy to any kind of Uighur grievance, labeling them as mere tactics designed to foster separatism, religious extremism, or terrorism in the region.

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