China’s crackdown on its Uighur minority has worsened since a spate of rioting took place in the country’s far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a leading advocate for the Muslim ethnic group has said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Beijing — where he is allegedly shadowed by two national security officers, having been released from house arrest — Illham Tohti, an economist and human rights activist, said a slew of new restrictions had been placed on Uighurs following recent ethnic unrest.
“Restrictions are getting more and more severe,” he said. The comment came amid reports that police last week gunned down 22 Uighurs allegedly implicated in a wave of violence that took place since April.
Xinjiang has been the site of continued tension between ethnic Chinese and Uighurs since the founding of the People’s Republic. But Tohti reported that following recent unrest, a slew of new measures were brought in to restrict Uighurs in the region, including arbitrary arrests and fresh restrictions barring women wearing headscarves and facial-coverings from entering public venues.
During his interview, Tohti said he could not speak freely, because the officers were nearby. Earlier this week, he wrote on social media that the passwords to his email and his website on Uighur affairs, UighurBiz.net, had been compromised. While he said he was not entirely sure who was behind the hacks, he said “chances are high” that it was a politically motivated move.
In July, Tohti was placed under house arrest, he believes because of the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue. A high-ranking State Department official told Al Jazeera that the talks, which took place last month, dealt largely with U.S. concerns regarding religious and social freedoms in Xinjiang.
Tohti has been detained on a number of occasions in the past few years. His comment on Xinjiang’s current state of affairs comes amid revelations of a violent crackdown that allegedly killed scores of Uighurs.
Radio Free Asia reported Thursday that on Aug. 22 Chinese police gunned down 22 Uighurs praying at a private home in Yilkiqi, a township in Xinjiang’s west.
Tohti declined to comment on the attack.
Although Beijing has attributed the ethnic clashes that killed at least 21 in April and another 27 in July — after similar riots that killed hundreds in 2008 and 2009 – to what it calls Uighur “terrorist” and “separatist” groups, many Uighurs say assailants are upset with social repression and the lack of opportunities to partake in the Han Chinese-dominated local economy.
The U.S. State Department has said religious restrictions remain an area of concern in relations with Beijing.
“Certainly we have observed a number of concerns,” Uzra Zeya, a human rights official with the State Department told Al Jazeera earlier this month, explaining that this year she has spoken to Chinese officials “on the right to practice religion freely” in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
Zeya noted that in recent years, authorities have restricted fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and barred minors from seeking religious instruction.