Chinese authorities have formally arrested prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on charges of separatism, after holding him in detention since last month.
Tohti’s wife Guzaili Nu’er said she received the arrest warrant at their home in Beijing Tuesday, while also learning that her husband is being held in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang.
“This is ridiculous,” she told Reuters. “He’s never done anything like this. He is a teacher.”
While detained on several previous occasions, Tohti has never been charged with anything as severe as secession, a crime punishable by death.
Home to a Muslim Turkic ethnic minority that has long resented Beijing’s rule, Xinjiang has seen an upswing in violent clashes in recent months, following an October incident in which a car driven by alleged Uighur separatists crashed into a crowd on Tiananmen Square.
At least 23 people have died in Xinjiang bloodshed since the beginning of the year. Beijing blames the violence on “terrorists” while international rights organizations condemn the government for restricting Uighur religious and cultural expression.
Tohti, an economics professor at a Beijing university, had been an outspoken critic of the Communist Party’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. However, he had stopped short of endorsing separatists’ call for independence.
After authorities detained Tohti in January, the U.S. State Department said that it appeared “to be a part of a disturbing pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions.”
Tohti’s lawyer Li Fangping said Tuesday that he had traveled to Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, but had been denied the right to visit his client.