Bucking trend, China releases activists

A public interest lawyer and a Uighur academic were freed from detention Sunday, with no explanation.

By , Staff writer

BEIJING – Like most other foreign journalists in Beijing, I generally report on the arrest of lawyers and civil rights activists and community organizers who fall foul of the Chinese authorities. So when some of them are released, it is only fair to record the fact.

The trouble is, the authorities are no less tight-lipped when it comes to the reason for their release than they are when people are asking why they were detained in the first place.

No explanation for release

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Take Ilham Tohti, for example. He's a Beijing-based university lecturer and a Uighur; he belongs to the Muslim minority ethnic group that comes from Xinjiang in China’s far west, and when violent rioting broke out there last June, Mr. Tohti was detained, as were hundreds of others.

Tohti warned friends he expected to be taken in, having been visited by the police a couple of times, and sure enough, on July 8 he simply disappeared. A day or so later the governor of Xinjiang, Nur Bekri, publicly accused Tohti of stirring up ethnic trouble on his website, “Uighur Online.”

It was impossible to verify the claim. The site had been taken down by the time the accusation surfaced, and it has been closed ever since.

More than 200 people suspected of involvement in the riots are set to go on trial this week, according to state media. But on Sunday, Tohti was allowed to go home. If he knows whether or not he has been charged with anything, he is not saying, preferring to stay out of the public eye. The authorities have said nothing, not even where he was held, let alone why.

For lawyer, charges may remain

Another well-known activist who got out of jail Sunday was Xu Zhiyong, a public interest lawyer who has made an international name for himself by taking on cases against the government. Mr. Xu represented parents who sued the authorities when their children were sickened by melamine-poisoned milk, for example.

Though Xu has been released, along with his office manager, the police did not say whether they are dropping tax-evasion charges they had brought against him last month. The charge – that Yu evaded taxes on a $100,000 grant to his legal center from Yale University – is generally seen here as a trumped-up way of punishing him.

Xu himself told reporters he had no idea why he was let out of jail, other than that a lot of supporters at home and abroad had protested his arrest.

Keeping activists out of circulation

Of course the two releases might just have been a coincidence. The authorities might simply have decided that six weeks out of circulation was enough for Tohti: his website has been shut, after all, and Xinjiang is quiet again.

And why hold Xu any longer? His detention was drawing more and more international opprobrium, and if the prosecutor wants to bring a case against Xu he knows where to find him.

Certainly, these releases do not seem to signal any kind of trend. At least nothing like the trend of more and more activist arrests, which has become only too clear over the past couple of years.

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