Ilham Tohti sat in the back of the second-floor coffee shop, eyes occasionally flitting to the door to check if he had been followed. The surprise was that it seemed he had not. By his count, some 15 people were employed to monitor his every movement, day and night. Occasionally, they threatened his life. The day before, a pair of vehicles driven by Chinese security officers had rammed his car and, for a few minutes, grabbed his wife as his two children, who he feared would be kidnapped, screamed in fear.
It was an unmistakable attempt to silence Prof. Tohti, an academic who was born an ethnic Uighur and has spent his adult life documenting and criticizing the mistreatment of his people, a largely Muslim minority that occupies the sprawling Xinjiang region in China’s far west.
But Prof. Tohti would not willingly go quiet.
“I have tried to tell the truth and to speak for Uighur people. This is my determination,” he said in a November interview with The Globe and Mail, using the polished English that amplified his voice around the world.
China was equally determined to mute that voice. A series of terrorist attacks blamed on Uighur radicals gave the government an opening. In January, Prof. Tohti was arrested.
Now Chinese authorities say he will be charged with separatism, a crime punishable by 10 years in prison or, possibly, execution. The charges raise the spectre that Prof. Tohti, who has been among the most important voices challenging China’s often discriminatory policies against minorities, will not be heard from again, as Beijing mounts a broad campaign to eliminate dissent.
The Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, on Thursday accused Prof. Tohti of maintaining close ties with the Europe and U.S.-based World Uighur Congress, which it said supports Xinjiang “independence,” and of connections with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist group. It also said he has encouraged “students to hate the country and government.”
“I felt sick when I heard about [the charges],” Guzaili Nuer, Prof. Tohti’s wife of nine years, said in an interview Thursday. “My mind is churning with this case. Sometimes, I forget my bank card PIN and my own phone number.”
The campaign against her husband continued. An article posted Thursday by Zhang Chunxian, general secretary of the Communist Party in Xinjiang, called “the fight against nation-splitting our major line of work and … the harsh crackdown on violent terrorist attacks the most important task.”
The Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, also on Thursday accused Prof. Tohti of maintaining close ties with the Europe and U.S.-based World Uighur Congress, which it said supports Xinjiang “independence,” and of connections with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist group. It also said he has encouraged “students to hate the country and government.”
The charges make no sense, Ms. Nuer said. Prof. Tohti, an economist, spent two decades teaching, most recently at Beijing’s prestigious Central University for Nationalities, so how could he preach hatred for Chinese? Her husband, she said is “ a reasonable person” who has “never” had any contact with terrorist organizations, she said.
Ms. Nuer said no one in the family has seen Prof. Tohti since he was taken away nearly seven months ago. When he was first detained, after being flown to Xinjiang from Beijing, he staged a 10-day hunger strike because authorities refused to serve him halal food. He was also deprived of food for 10 days after a March terrorist attack, when he was provided only water. He has lost about 10 kilograms, Li Fangping, one of his lawyers, said.
The official crackdown on dissent – even from moderate voices like Prof. Tohti – has not achieved the stability Beijing seeks. This week, clashes with police in Xinjiang have left dozens, perhaps a hundred, Uighurs dead. On Wednesday Juma Tahir, imam of one of the largest mosques in Xinjiang, was also killed; Mr. Tahir had frequently spoken out against terrorism to Chinese state press, and was seen as supportive of the Communist Party.
Prof. Tohti had little appetite for violence. “I am one who appeals for peace,” he said in November.
In the November interview, he listed friends, family and even students who had been taken away over the years, some sentenced to as long as 12 years in prison for speaking with media.
He warned then that silencing him could portend broader problems. Take away those, like him, calling for non-violent change, and only bloody means remain, he cautioned. “The government needs to provide a peaceful tunnel for Uighur people to express their opinion,” he said.