A prominent scholar from China's Turkic Uighur ethnic minority said Sunday he was detained for more than 12 hours at Beijing's airport and then sent home when attempting to board a flight to the U.S., the latest in a series of apparent punishments in retaliation for his criticism of ruling Communist Party policies.
Ilham Tohti said he was planning to take up a year-long fellowship at Indiana University when he was prevented from leaving the country on Saturday. He said he was interrogated from 8:45 a.m. until after 9:00 p.m. by three separate groups of officers, none of whom gave him any reason why he was being detained.
For the first 10 hours, officers refused to allow him to use the bathroom or provide food and water, Tohti said in an interview. However, they did allow his 18-year-old daughter, who was traveling with him, to board their flight, a move Tohti said was likely an oversight on behalf of the policewoman in charge.
"They had no reason to doubt me, no reason to detain, no reason to deprive a lawful citizen of his right to travel," Tohti said. "I strongly condemn their brutal, barbaric behavior and will continue to pursue my right to travel."
Police and customs agents at the airport said they had no information about the case.
A Beijing-based economist, Tohti has been barred from traveling and placed under house arrest numerous times in the wake of deadly ethnic rioting in the capital of the Uighur ethnic homeland of Xinjiang in 2009 that sparked a nationwide crackdown on Uighur activists.
Muslim Uighurs, who are ethnically, culturally, religiously, and linguistically distinct from China's Han majority, have long chafed under heavy-handed communist rule. Many Uighurs allege frequent discrimination, including travel restrictions and an inability to obtain passports, and also resent the presence and relative prosperity of Han migrants who have flooded into Xinjiang since the Communist revolution in 1949.
While Tohti has not joined in calls for Xinjiang's independence, his outspokenness on ethnic policies has made him a target of the security services. In addition to travel restrictions, Ministry of Public Security special agents confiscated his six-year-old son's residency permit, making it impossible to register him for elementary school, he said.
"My family is coming under heavier pressure all the time," Tohti said. "I really don't wish to stay in this country a minute more."