Imagine that you are a university president, heading to Europe to launch a major new research partnership. Upon arriving at the airport, you are arrested. You are then tried in secret and sentenced to death.
This is exactly what happened to Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of China’s Xinjiang University, prominent geographer and scholar, and a Uighur — an ethnic minority in China. He was heading to Leibniz University in Germany in March 2017 to sign an agreement to create a new Joint Center for Underground Coal Fire Research when he was detained, along with two others from the delegation, at the airport in Beijing.
Since then, Tiyip has been sentenced to death in a secret trial, but the sentence was delayed for two years. Now that reprieve is almost up and his execution could be imminent. There is no information about why he was arrested, the formal charges or any evidence against him.
Our organization, the American Assn. of Geographers, a scientific society with members in more than 100 countries, has submitted an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping demanding more information and the release of Tiyip. It is signed by 1,300 geographers and academics from more than 400 institutions.
Geographers like Tiyip work at the intersection of environment and people, in specialties including meteorology, soil science and the study of ethnic groups. Such research helps form the basis for urban planning, environmental protections and development that improve life for society as a whole.
Tiyip studied industrial pollution caused by open-pit coal mining that could harm public health. He has published dozens of peer-reviewed articles on numerous topics, including heavy metal pollution linked to coal mining, soil salinity, desertification, water extraction and land use. Clearly, studies connected to energy production, crop production and water safety benefit the Chinese people and contribute to the public good.
Tiyip’s research focuses on his home province, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where most Uighur Muslims live in northwestern China. Human rights groups have spoken out strongly against the repression, abuse and indefinite detention of a million Uighurs in reeducation camps. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres raised this issue in April during a visit to China. In July, 22 nations formally rebuked China for its treatment of minorities in Xinjiang.
Whether Tiyip’s arrest and death sentence are connected to his ethnic background or his research is unknown. The government has refused to release information about the charges against him, though there’s been some reporting suggesting that he was arrested for being disloyal to official Chinese policies. The complete lack of transparency suggests the government cannot defend its actions.
Scientists around the world are standing up for Tiyip. His case is an example that will be used to threaten and silence other Uighur researchers who have come under attack. If a prominent scientist and university president can be erased from public view, who is safe?
It’s time for the U.S. Congress, the State Department, and President Trump to demand accountability from China on this case. Without sufficient credible evidence that Tiyip committed an internationally recognized crime, and proof that he was convicted after a fair trial that met international standards, he should be released.
Gary Langham is an ecologist and executive director of the American Assn. of Geographers.