Authorities Block Uyghur Scholar From Leaving China, Refuse To Grant Passport to Uyghur Student

March 7, 2013

Chinese authorities took steps recently to prevent two Beijing-based Uyghurs from traveling outside of the country, highlighting official restrictions on Uyghurs' freedom of movement. The detentions of Ilham Tohti, an outspoken critic of government policy toward Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and his daughter, and the detention of Atikem Rozi, a university student who posted comments on the Internet about authorities' refusal to grant her a passport, also point to grave repercussions that Uyghurs face when exercising their right to freedom of expression inside China.

Ilham Tohti

On February 2, 2013, Chinese authorities reportedly detained Uyghur scholar and webmaster Ilham Tohti and his 18-year-old daughter at the Beijing Capital International Airport as they were undergoing security procedures (Radio Free Asia (RFA), 1 February 13). According to RFA (28 April 10 and 7 February 13), Tohti holds a valid passport and has been issued a J-1 visa to the United States, where he planned to take up a visiting scholar position at the University of Indiana. According to the same RFA articles, Tohti was a professor at Central Nationalities University in Beijing municipality and founded the Web site Uyghur Online ( Tohti has been detained and interrogated on multiple occasions in the past, most notably for six weeks following the July 5, 2009, demonstrations and riots in Urumqi city, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) (RFA, 24 August 09; CECC analysis, 6 August 09 and 8 December 09). Tohti told Radio France Internationale (RFI) that, at the time of their phone call on February 2, XUAR public security officers had held him for five hours, preventing him from boarding his U.S.-bound flight (RFI, 2 February 13). Authorities held his daughter, who was traveling with him, in a separate room before allowing her to board their U.S.-bound flight alone (Associated Press (AP), reprinted in, 3 February 13). Authorities held Tohti at the Beijing airport for a total of more than 12 hours, the first 10 of which they denied him food, water, and access to restroom facilities, according to the February 3 AP report. During this time, he reportedly endured interrogation by three separate groups of public security officers, who did not provide a reason for his detention, according to the same report.

On February 7, Tohti told RFA that a police car had been stationed outside of his home after his detention, and police were questioning anyone who tried to speak with him. Tohti also told RFA that unknown hackers had attacked Uyghur Online after his detention (RFA, 7 February 13). The Web site addresses issues of ethnicity in China, and Tohti has criticized government policy in the XUAR on the Web site and elsewhere. Authorities have closed the Web site on multiple occasions in the past. (CECC Analysis, 6 August 09). On March 5 and February 26, RFA reported that Tohti had been suffering from heart problems following his February 2 airport detention, and specifically after extended interrogation sessions on February 22, 25, and 26 in his Beijing home, where he remains under 24-hour surveillance.

Atikem Rozi

In a separate incident, on February 5, authorities detained and interrogated 21-year-old Uyghur student Atikem Rozi, after she attempted to apply for a passport a second time in order to study abroad. According to Uyghur Online (7 February 13), public security officers in Toqsu (Xinhe) county, Aqsu district, XUAR, reportedly took Rozi from her parents' home in Belkesti (Baileikaisiti) village, Uchqat (Yuqikate) township, Toqsu and detained and interrogated her for six hours. According to the report, the officers visited their home again on February 7 and questioned her for at least two hours. A February 5 Uyghur Online article reported that the Toqsu County Public Security Bureau had also summoned Rozi and her mother to their office on February 4. Rozi, a third-year student at Central Nationalities University in Beijing, was at her parents' home during the Chinese New Year holiday period (RFA, 8 February 13).

In a December 2012 Uyghur Online article, Rozi described her two attempts to apply for a passport. She reportedly first applied for a passport in 2011 in Beijing, where her household registration (hukou) is registered, in accordance with Article 5 of the PRC Passport Law. However, two months later, Beijing officials phoned her to say that XUAR officials refused to process her passport application. In December 2012, several weeks after Rozi submitted a second passport application with the Beijing Entry-Exit Administration, Administration staff informed her that her application had been denied, and when she visited the Administration in person to inquire about the reason for the denial, staff members did not provide one. Rozi subsequently contacted the Toqsu County Foreign Affairs Office, who informed her that the denial was due to the fact that she was "politically unqualified," and specifically because she had been questioned by public security officers in Toqsu in the summer of 2011.

Rozi recalled in the same Uyghur Online article that on August 5, 2011, public security officers in Toqsu had detained and interrogated her, and on August 25, 2011, Toqsu County Education Bureau officials interrogated her again. According to Rozi, the officers said her August 5 detention was due to two postings she made on Renren, a Chinese microblogging service, in which she complained about ethnic discrimination and a lack of ethnic minority rights. On August 25, officials again questioned her regarding her vote in an online poll about ethnic discrimination in China (screen grab of poll available here). During the August 25 questioning, education officials urged her to make fewer comments online. According to a December 2012 RFA article, Rozi has also posted comments on the widely used Sina Weibo microblogging service regarding officials' refusal to grant her a passport.

Chinese authorities continue to restrict freedom of movement to penalize citizens who express views that authorities deem objectionable or sensitive, including through the arbitrary prevention of rights defenders, advocates, and critics from leaving China. According to Article 13(7) of the PRC Passport Law and Article 8(5) of the PRC Exit and Entry Control Law, officials have the discretion to prevent Chinese citizens from traveling abroad when they believe that a citizen's leaving China might harm "state security" or cause "major loss" to "national interests." However, the meaning and scope of harm or loss to state security or national interests are undefined, which has led to official abuse and arbitrary enforcement. (For more information on and examples of official use of restrictions on freedom of movement to penalize citizens, see pages 97-98 of the Commission's 2012 Annual Report and New York Times, 22 February 13.)

Chinese officials have implemented restrictions on passports and international and domestic travel for Uyghurs as part of a series of repressive security measures in the XUAR. According to the February 22 New York Times article, Uyghur passport applicants, unlike Han Chinese applicants, are required to seek approval from provincial authorities and the public security bureau from their hometown. XUAR residents have reported that authorities have maintained restrictions on passport applications from Uyghurs and members of other non-Han groups since the July 2009 demonstrations and riots (RFA, 10 September 10 and 28 February 11; U.S. State Department, 24 May 12). A February 7 Uyghur Human Rights Project briefing reports that Chinese authorities have been engaging in widespread confiscation and denial of Uyghurs' passports throughout the XUAR since 2006.

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV—Xinjiang in the CECC 2012 Annual Report.