Ilham Tohti, a public Uyghur intellectual and professor of economics at the Central Minorities University, was detained at the Beijing Capital International Airport on his way to the US on February 2, 2013. Tohti was later sentenced to life imprisonment on September 23, 2014 on charges of "separatism" by a court in China's Xinjiang region.
Tohti was with his daughter when police stopped them during security checks at the airport and prevented them from boarding their departing flight to the US. While Tohti's daughter was then permitted to leave on a later flight, Tohti himself was held in an interrogation room for 10 hours before being sent back to his apartment without explanation.
As an outspoken critic of the government's treatment of China's Uyghur minority, Tohti had been detained several times before. He had also previously been denied permission by government authorities to take a visiting scholar position at Indiana University.
On January 15, 2014, Tohti was arrested without any specific charge and detained in an unknown location. According to his wife, his computers and phones were also seized. On January 25 Chinese authorities posted a report online accusing Tohti of leading a nationalist group that advocated the use of violence to overthrow the Chinese government in Xinjiang. During this period of his disappearance, Beijing’s Minzu University, where Tohti once taught, stopped paying him a salary, leaving his family little to survive.
On August 20, 2014, Tohti's family announced that Chinese authorities had slated a pretrial hearing for September. Tohti was then sentenced to life in prison.
Since this charge, Tohti's assets have been confiscated, and he has been deprived of his political rights. According to his wife, Chinese authorities removed 850,000 yuan (140,000 US dollars) from Tohti’s bank account on October 28, 2014. She also stated in an interview with Radio Free Europe on May 22, 2015 that Chinese authorities have denied his relatives permission to visit him in prison or to send him clothing and money.