Beijing — Security officials in China’s far western borderlands have formally arrested a scholar and champion of the country’s ethnic Uighurs on charges of inciting separatism, his lawyer said Wednesday.
The authorities also confirmed that the scholar, Ilham Tohti, was being held in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, which is about 2,000 miles from Mr. Tohti’s home in Beijing.
Although not unexpected, the formal arrest of Mr. Tohti underscores the government’s determination to silence one of the few moderate voices for China’s beleaguered Uighurs, a predominantly Sunni Muslim people who speak a Turkic language.
An economics professor in Beijing, Mr. Tohti, 44, was an outspoken but careful critic of Chinese policies in Xinjiang, an energy-rich region that adjoins several Central Asian nations and is something of a geopolitical minefield. Tensions between Uighurs and the Chinese security forces have turned increasingly violent, with almost weekly clashes that in recent months have taken more than 100 lives.
Security officials said Mr. Tohti had heightened such tensions through his classroom lectures and writings, a charge rejected by his supporters.
“The accusations are baseless,” said his lawyer, Li Fangping.
Mr. Tohti’s wife, Guzaili Nu’er, said her husband’s life was an open book, largely because his every word — like his movements — had been closely monitored by the authorities. “He is a sensible, educated man who just studied human rights, culture and religion in Xinjiang,” she said. “A separatist? Now that’s beyond the pale.”
Speaking from Urumqi, Mr. Li said he had been unable to see Mr. Tohti, who has been held incommunicado since the police raided his Beijing apartment six weeks ago and led him away. Security officials in Xinjiang on Wednesday did not respond to questions sent by fax.
Even in China’s highly politicized judicial system, where defendants in political cases almost never prevail in court, charges of separatism are notoriously Kafkaesque and especially difficult to defend, experts say.
Under Chinese law, even highlighting ethnic problems in places like Xinjiang and Tibet can be seen as threatening national unity because the state refuses to acknowledge that such frictions exist.
Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said that Mr. Tohti was widely known for his advocacy of Uighur rights and autonomy — guarantees enshrined in the Chinese Constitution — but that he never advocated independence for China’s 10 million Uighurs.
“In the eyes of the authorities, if you are flagging legitimate problems with policies in the region, you are essentially raising the dissatisfaction level of the people who are subjected to these policies,” Mr. Bequelin said. “It’s not a legal test but a political test. There is no defense.”
The penalties range from 10 years to death.
Analysts say the prosecution of Mr. Tohti can be viewed against the backdrop of a policy shift that places security concerns in Xinjiang over economic development, previously the driving force behind the central government’s efforts to pacify the region.
But that calculation was turned on its head in October, after a Uighur man drove his vehicle through a crowd opposite Tiananmen Square, the political heart of Beijing, killing two pedestrians and the car’s three occupants. The state news media provided limited information about the assailants but described the episode as a terrorist plot by Islamic extremists.
At the time, Mr. Tohti urged the authorities not to use the attack as a pretext for a wide-ranging crackdown in Xinjiang, a move he said would increase ethnic tensions. “I fear that making life difficult for ordinary, law-abiding Uighurs will only make the situation worse,” he said. “The best thing would be for the authorities to take a step back and examine what drives people to such desperation in the first place.”