By Barbara Demick February 2, 2013
BEIJING — The most prominent Uighur intellectual in China was taken into custody Saturday at Beijing’s international airport with his daughter as he tried to board a flight for the United States.
The detention of Beijing professor Ilham Tohti recalled the circumstances of artist Ai Weiwei’s detention in 2011 at the airport.
Tohti is an economist who teaches at the Central Minorities University and runs a website, Uighurbiz.net.
“I, Ilham Tohti originally planned to go to the U.S. They stopped me and prevented me from leaving. I’m at the airport police room right now,” Tohti announced on Twitter shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday, Beijing time. He also tweeted the badge numbers of the police who were holding him.
According to Radio Free Asia, he was able to make a telephone call to a friend in which he said, “My daughter and I are kept in two separate rooms.”
Considered a moderate by many other activists, Tohti focused on the lack of economic opportunities for Uighurs, who have been shut out of the boom in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, where most live. His website has highlighted the difficulty of Uighurs and other minorities in obtaining passports and traveling outside of China.
He and his family have been frequently banned from traveling, including his daughter, a teenager, who had obtained a visa to study in the United States.
Nury Turkel, a Washington-based lawyer active in Uighur issues, said he believed Tohti might have been escorting his daughter to school. “He has always said that he did not want to leave China himself, and unless the situation for his has gotten much worse, I don’t think that has changed,” said Turkel.