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BEIJING – European and American officials on Friday urged China to explain why police have detained a prominent scholar who criticized the government's heavy repression of his Uighur ethnic minority community.
About 30 police officers took economics professor Ilham Tohti from his home in Beijing on Wednesday then seized computers, cellphones and even his students' thesis manuscripts in a six-hour raid, his wife said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Ilham Tohti had been "criminally detained" on suspicion of an unspecified crime.
It was the most serious of recent actions by Chinese authorities in apparent retaliation against the scholar, who is arguably the most famous mainland-based critic of the ruling Communist Party's restrictive policies in Xinjiang in western China.
China has tightened control over the restive region, which has been rocked by a series of riots and attacks on police and other symbols of Chinese power over the past year. State media reported earlier this month that President Xi Jinping has ordered authorities to refocus their efforts on "maintaining social stability" in Xinjiang.
The European Union's ambassador to China, Markus Ederer, in a briefing with reporters on Friday in Beijing, urged Chinese authorities to clarify what charges Tohti might be facing and tell his family where he is being held.
"I have called on the authorities to treat him in line with Chinese legislation, to substantiate the charges ... to inform the family of his whereabouts. If these charges cannot be substantiated, release him," Ederer said. He added that the European Union was concerned by the "tightening of human rights conditions" in China that's evident in the authorities' ongoing prosecution of civil rights activists.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that the United States was deeply concerned about the reports that Ilham Tohti had been taken away, and called on the Chinese authorities to account for his whereabouts.
The statement said the detention "appears to be 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."
Beijing police have not responded to repeated requests for comment. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing Thursday that Ilham Tohti "is suspected of violating the law and committing a crime" and that police have placed him under criminal detention.
Ilham Tohti has been barred from traveling and placed under house arrest numerous times in the wake of deadly ethnic rioting in the capital of the Uighur ethnic homeland of Xinjiang in 2009 that sparked a nationwide crackdown on Uighur activists.
He has not joined calls for Xinjiang's independence but his outspokenness on problems with China's ethnic policies has made him a target of security forces. He has criticized the authoritarian government's heavy-handed handling of recent unrest, saying China's stifling security presence, widespread discrimination and restrictions on religious and social practices have fanned ethnic discord in Xinjiang.
"The Uighur people have become outsiders in the development of their own homeland and survival," Ilham Tohti wrote in a post on his mobile social media account Wednesday morning. "It is here that the people's anger begins to grow. Uighur people need an avenue to express their aspirations and protect their rights."
The scholar's wife, Guzaili Nu'er, and friends have said they fear that Chinese authorities are planning to take stronger measures against Ilham Tohti this time. They cite the seizure of his things and the questioning of his students as signs that police were collecting evidence for a prosecution.
Associated Press writer Joe McDonald and reporter Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.