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Uighur Economist Ilham Tohti Released from Detention with Warning

Uighur Economist Ilham TohtiOn August 23, 2009, Ilham Tohti—a member of China's Uighur ethnic minority—was unexpectedly released from detention without charge.  He had been held since July 8 for allegedly promoting separatism by instigating the riots that erupted in early July in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).  Professor Tohti and two other high-profile political activists were freed without any official explanation, the day after the arrival in Beijing of the new U.S. ambassador, Jon M. Huntsman, Jr.  The CHR intervened on Professor Tohti's case a few days after his arrest, appealing to the Chinese authorities for his prompt release.  In an interview Professor Tohti gave to Radio Free Asia late on August 24 from his home—with a police officer standing by his side—he explained that he was visited by police following his release who warned him not to speak out about the government's handling of the July riots in the XUAR capital, Urumqi, and told him that he "could soon be sentenced - be sentenced to death, be 'dealt with.'"  He also said that he had been detained for part of the time in his home and the remainder in a hotel near Beijing where he was questioned for two weeks, for more than 20 hours a day, by three to four officials of the secret police.  Noting that he was treated humanely throughout his detention, he stressed that he was never accused of committing a specific crime and that he knew the "procedure was illegal."
 
Ilham Tohti is a 39-year-old professor of economics at Central Nationalities University in Beijing and editor of the website, Uighur Online-a website and blog published in both Chinese and Uighur and widely seen as a moderate, intellectual site addressing social issues in XUAR.  Following the rioting in early July, the XUAR governor publicly accused Uighur Online of fomenting violence by spreading rumors.  The site was immediately closed.  Professor Tohti's academic work reportedly has focused on how the Chinese government policy of encouraging the majority Han Chinese to move into the XUAR has disadvantaged and marginalized native Uighurs.  (According to census figures, the number of Han Chinese in XUAR has risen dramatically from 6% of the population in 1949 to 40% in 2000.)  
 
(Photo Credit: Copyright © 1998-2009, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036)