BEIJING (Reuters) – A prominent Uighur exile was detained briefly by police in Italy, his organization said on Friday, calling on the European Union to investigate whether China had pressured Italian authorities to take action.
Uighurs are a largely Muslim people who live in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, where hundreds of people have died in the past few years, mostly in unrest between its 10 million Uighurs and the ethnic majority Han Chinese.
China has blamed much of the unrest on separatist Islamist militants, though rights groups and exiles say anger over tightening Chinese controls on the religion and culture of Uighurs is more to blame.
On Wednesday, Italian police asked Dolkun Isa, the general secretary of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, to accompany them for an identification check.
At the time, he was walking with colleagues to the Italian Senate building, where he was to have spoken on the restrictions facing Uighurs in China, Radio Free Asia (RFA) said.
Isa told RFA he demanded to know why he was being detained and the officers had said they acted on a request from China. Reuters could not independently verify the statement.
“I think the occurrence of this incident in a democratic country is shocking and unacceptable,” Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, said in an emailed statement on Friday.
“This actually challenges the bottom-line values of Italian democracy.”
He also urged the European Union to seek assistance from the Italian government in investigating if there had been “secret coordination” with the Chinese government over the detention.
Italian police did not immediately comment, but the Italian Radical Party, which invited Isa to Italy, confirmed he had been detained.
According to RFA, Isa, a German national since 2006, alerted German authorities of his detention by cellphone while Italian police took him to a nearby police station.
Police released him several hours later, saying they would verify his information against a database of the global police agency Interpol, RFA said.
In November, Interpol elected a senior Chinese public security official, Meng Hongwei, as president, prompting concern amongst rights groups that China could use the position to its advantage.
“Dolkun Isa is a terrorist wanted by an Interpol red notice and Chinese police,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular briefing in Beijing. “Bringing him to justice is something the relevant country is obliged to do.”
Lu did not say if China was in touch with Italian authorities on the matter.
A “red notice” is an international alert for a wanted person but is not an international arrest warrant.
A Beijing-based Western diplomat told Reuters that China frequently asks European countries to arrest Isa, but has never provided evidence of the crimes it says he has committed.
Isa, a former Xinjiang student activist, says he condemns all terrorism.
Reporting by Michael Martina, Philip Wen, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in ROME; Editing by Clarence Fernandez