(New York) – The Chinese government’s announcement on July 30, 2014, of “separatism” charges against the Uighur economist Ilham Tohti is deeply disturbing, Human Rights Watch said today.
China’s state press reported online that the Urumqi People’s Procuratorate had formally indicted Tohti, a moderate advocate of greater respect for rights of China’s Uighur minority, for “separatism.” The charge can result in the death penalty.
“The decision to indict on such a serious charge a man like Ilham Tohti, who is known for trying to bridge divides, shows how far China’s human rights have deteriorated in the past months,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “It sends precisely the wrong signal to Uighurs when tensions are at an all-time high."
Tohti’s lawyers said the charge is based on articles published on Uighur Online, a website Tohti founded that focused on Uighur issues. The authorities alleged that the articles, some of which Tohti wrote and some of which were posted by his students and volunteers, have “subversive intent.” The charge is also based on Tohti’s interviews with foreign media. None of these articles or interviews incited violence or terrorism, according to his lawyers. The authorities have also cited as evidence Tohti’s lectures at Beijing Minzu University of China, where he taught. The authorities have refused to hand over videotape copies of the lectures to his lawyers, nor have the lawyers received a copy of the indictment.
There is no publicly available evidence that Tohti engaged in any form of speech or behavior that could be construed by any objective standard as inciting violence or unlawful action.
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 him to Urumqi, the region’s capital. On January 24, his wife received a formal criminal detention notification that Tohti was being held in Urumqi under “separatism” charges. 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.” He was formally arrested for “separatism” on February 25.
Tohti was not allowed access to his lawyers for over five months, until June 26. Police rejected the lawyers’ requests on the grounds that the case “endangers state security.” Tohti told his lawyers that he was not given food for 10 days and was shackled for 20 days.
Tohti has been outspoken and critical of many Chinese government policies in Xinjiang and toward the Uighur community. But he 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. Tohti denied the charges against him in the June 26 meeting with his lawyer.
There have been multiple incidents of serious violence in Xinjiang in recent months, most recently in Shache County, Kashgar, on July 28. Chinese state media reported that a group armed with knives attacked the town government building and police station, killing or injuring dozens of Hans and Uighurs. The report has not been independently confirmed.
The Chinese government has characterized this and other attacks as “premeditated” terror attacks, though many details about the attacks are unclear due to tight control over information from, and access to, the region.
The Chinese government has responded to escalating violence in Xinjiang with a yearlong crackdown, detaining and sentencing dozens of alleged terrorists.
While the Chinese government has legitimate security concerns in the region, it systematically conflates peaceful dissent with the use or advocacy of antigovernment violence and fails to acknowledge Uighur grievances. The government typically describes the grievances as tactics designed to foster separatism, religious extremism, or terrorism in the region. Uighurs have described in detail diverse human rights abuses in the region, including pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, increasing cultural suppression, lack of respect for fair trials, and extralegal abuses such as enforced disappearances.
“The Chinese government appears determined to silence Uighurs like Tohti, who for years has tried to peacefully express Uighurs’ legitimate grievances and advocate peaceful solutions,” Richardson said. “Demonizing moderates like Tohti won’t bring peace to the region.”