East Turkestan: Tensions Over Arbitrary Detention Of Ilham Tohti
As a Uyghur peaceful activist that contributes to challenge Chinese policies, professor Ilham Tohti was arrested by the Chinese authorities after expressing fears regarding the government’s pressure on the Uyghur people. He was charged with separatism despite his moderate views on the issue of self-determination This detention follows a series of many other Uyghur activists’ arrests in China and inevitably revives deep tensions between the community and Chinese officials.
Below is an article published by World Uyghur Congress:
Chinese authorities have formally arrested a prominent scholar of China’s Uighur Muslim ethnic group and charged him with separatism, his wife says.
Ilham Tohti, an economics professor in Beijing, has been critical of China’s ethnic policies. He has been detained by police since last month.
The US and EU have expressed concern over Mr Tohti’s detention.
The Muslim Uighur group mostly live in Xinjiang, in China’s far west. There are sporadic clashes in the region.
The government traditionally blames extremists for the violence. Uighur activists, on the other hand, point to ethnic tensions and tight Chinese control as triggers for violence.
Mr Tohti’s wife, Guzaili Nu’er, said she received an arrest warrant and notice of the separatism charges on Tuesday. He was being detained in Xinjiang, she added.
She told Reuters news agency the charges were “ridiculous”.
“He’s never done anything like this. He is a teacher,” she said.
Mr Tohti’s lawyer, Li Fangping, said he had travelled to Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, to see his client, but had been denied access so far.
“From my knowledge of him and his statements, nothing constitutes the charge of [inciting] secession,” he told AP news agency.
Chinese state media have previously said that Mr Tohti was being investigated for “separatist activities”.
Mr Tohti has been critical of China’s treatment of the Uighurs and recently expressed fears on his website about increased pressure on the minority group following last October’s deadly attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
A car crashed through a crowd and burst into flames, killing five people. Beijing authorities have blamed the incident on Uighur separatists.
Xinjiang has experienced several violent clashes in recent months. According to China state media reports, 11 people were killed in clashes with police earlier this month [February], while 12 people died in an outbreak of violence in January. Confirming details of these incidents is difficult, because foreign media access to the region is tightly controlled.
China has restricted Mr Tohti’s movements on several occasions since deadly ethnic rioting in Urumqi in 2009 that left about 200 people dead.
In January, the US State Department said Mr Tohti’s detention appeared “to be part of a disturbing pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions”.
New allegations of scorched earth evictions of the Ogaden people have raised concerns that a lack of benefit sharing could escalate instability in the region and reinforce separatist tensions as foreign energy companies prepare to extract oil and gas from troubled southeastern Ethiopia.
"The resources in this region will make Ethiopia rich but will keep us impoverished. A settlement is all we can hope for to protect our claim to some of the economic advantages of our natural resources," Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) founder Abdirahman Mahdi told IPS.
The demise of Ethiopian dictator Hailemariam Mengistu in 1994 triggered a two-decade conflict between the government of Ethiopia and the ONLF. The ONLF has been fighting for self-determination of the eight to 10 million Somali ethnic population living in the Ogaden basin within the Somali National Regional State (SNRS).
The government's heavy paramilitary response to the insurgency has created "a humanitarian crisis throughout the Ogaden [basin] where half of the population live through famine," said Mahdi.
Reports of forced evictions and human rights abuses in the vicinity of oil and gas fields is creating a new wave of grievances against the government in local communities.
"The army came to our community and burnt our homes and our crops. Our situation is getting worse as the military want many villages removed because of the search for gas.
"Many people in this area have been arrested. We don't know where they are or if they are alive. Our situation is very bad," one Ogaden man, who asked to remain anonymous, told IPS.
The confirmation of huge oil and gas reserves in the Ogaden basin is set to spike Ethiopia's wealth as investment starts to pour in from foreign energy companies.
Gas deposits in the Ogaden basin are estimated at 2.7 trillion cubic feet over an area of 350,000 square kilometres.
Currently there are three oil companies finalising exploration in the area: Africa Oil (Canada), South Western Energy (Hong Kong) and GCL Poly Petroleum Investment (China).
Ethiopia has been Africa's fastest-growing economy in recent years and could soon be an oil-producing economy. However, a government embargo on the Ogaden has severely isolated the region's predominantly pastoralist population from Ethiopia's development gains. Any prospect of consultation over resource extraction at this stage look slim, says Ogaden expert Professor Tobias Hagmann from the Roskilde University in Denmark.
"Our situation is getting worse as the military want many villages removed because of the search for gas. Many people in this area have been arrested. We don't know where they are or if they are alive." -- Ogaden villager
"It is very unlikely that the local population will be consulted about local projects. They are not allowed to voice political dissent. How can they be allowed to participate in local decision-making related to development plans," he told IPS.
Government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal told IPS that oil and gas riches "will contribute to the development of the SNRS including the Ogaden region."
The Ethiopian government has been criticised by rights organisations for preventing NGOs from providing humanitarian aid to one of the poorest regions of Ethiopia and creating an exodus of thousands of refugees.
Amnesty International's researcher on Ethiopia Claire Beston told IPS that the Ethiopian government's clampdown on the Ogaden Somali population "has severely restricted access to and within the region, including that of humanitarian agencies, and has also placed major restrictions on information coming out of the region about the true state of the humanitarian and human rights situation there."