Uighur Scholar Faces Separatism Charge Amid Xinjiang Unrest

Chinese authorities formally charged an ethnic minority scholar with separatism for allegedly inciting students to overthrow the government, following clashes in his native Xinjiang region that killed dozens of people.

Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uighur scholar who taught at Minzu University in Beijing, is being prosecuted for allegedly “splitting the country,” the prosecutor’s office in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, said on its microblog yesterday. Tohti was detained in January.

China has waged a security crackdown in a bid to stifle what it calls a surge in terrorism in Xinjiang, with Uighur-rights groups saying the Internet has been blocked and their movements restricted. A series of bomb and knife attacks in Xinjiang, Beijing and the southern city of Kunming, as well as clashes between police and ethnic Uighurs, have killed scores of people in recent months.

The U.S. is concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding Tohti’s arrest and the detention of at least six of his students, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said yesterday.

“We call on Chinese authorities to release Mr. Tohti and his students and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments,” Harf said.

Internal Affairs

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded by telling the U.S. to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, according to a statement on the ministry’s website. China opposes the U.S. using words like “human rights” and “freedom” to interfere in Tohti’s case, Qin said.

Tohti used a website he runs to spread separatist thoughts and call for independence in Xinjiang, the Urumqi Public Security Bureau said in a January statement. He also incited his students to hate the country and overthrow the government, it said.

The announcement about Tohti’s prosecution came two days after clashes between police and a mob left dozens of people dead on Monday, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. The Uyghur American Association said 20 Uighurs were killed in what it called “excessive state violence” against people protesting a crackdown timed with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Uighur Imam

Also yesterday, Jume Tahir, the Uighur imam of a mosque in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, was stabbed to death by unknown assailants, Radio Free Asia reported, citing unidentified witnesses and officials. Tahir was quoted by China’s official Xinhua News Agency opposing “acts intended to split the country and sabotage ethnic unity,” and was a deputy to the National People’s Congress.

The World Uyghur Congress, which backs greater political freedom for Uighurs in Xinjiang, said Chinese forces killed nearly 100 Uighurs after the protests on Monday.

“The situation is very grim at the moment,” congress spokesman Alim Seytoff said in an e-mail. “Internet and instant messaging have been shut down by the authorities. They’re searching for the Uighurs who took part in the protest that took place Monday morning.”

The Monday attack “is being handled in a proper way,” Vice Public Security Minister Huang Ming said at a briefing in Beijing yesterday.

— With assistance by Daryl Loo

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