These are precarious times for Mr. Tohti, a brazenly outspoken spark plug of a man whose advocacy for China’s Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs has landed him on the government’s list of citizens who warrant near-constant surveillance.
Last July, after ethnic bloodletting in the far western region of Xinjiang killed 197 people, the governor appeared on television to accuse Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader, of inciting the violence, much of which involved Uighur mobs bludgeoning Han Chinese migrants in Urumqi, the regional capital. Then he parceled out some of the blame to Mr. Tohti’s Web site, Uighurbiz.net, a lively forum for debate — and a platform for rumormongering, according to the government — before it was blocked by the censors.
The next day, security agents from Beijing took him on what he said they called a “vacation” for three weeks, interrogating him for long periods and warning him to stop publicly criticizing the government’s policies and practices in Xinjiang. The agents later decamped to his living room, although Mr. Tohti declined to describe the experience for fear he might incur their wrath. “Sometimes they were nice to me, but other times they said, ‘We can crush you like an ant,’ ” he said.
It is not clear why they have not crushed him yet. Since the unrest of last summer, the authorities have had little compunction about detaining scores of Uighurs whose whereabouts remain a mystery. In recent weeks, several have been given long prison terms, including three Web masters and a journalist who were convicted for endangering the Chinese state. The longest sentence, 15 years, was handed down to Gheyret Niyaz, a 51-year-old writer who worked for Mr. Tohti’s Web site. Prosecutors say Mr. Niyaz’ greatest crime was speaking to a magazine in Hong Kong.