SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: July 31, 2016

Attack Types: Imprisonment

Institution(s):Al-Azhar University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

In July 2016, Chinese authorities reportedly detained Hebibulla Tohti, a theological scholar, in retaliation for allegedly “unauthorized” academic activities at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, where he completed his doctorate.

According to sources, Dr. Tohti was one of three student selected by China’s Islamic Association to pursue studies at Al-Azhar University. He completed his doctorate in September 2015 and reportedly received positive recognition from China’s Islamic Association for his dissertation defense.

In July 2016, Chinese officials reportedly ordered Dr. Tohti to return to China and register with the government. Upon arrival, Dr. Tohti was detained and interrogated about “illegal activities” he had allegedly engaged in while abroad. These reportedly included “teaching religion to Uyghur students in Egypt without the permission of Chinese authorities, attending a religious conference in Saudi Arabia in 2015 without the permission of Chinese authorities, and writing about the distinct cultural achievements of the Uyghur in his dissertation.” Dr. Tohti was held in detention and continued to face interrogations until his January 2017 release.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of academic freedom, as well as religious freedom — conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State officials have a responsibility not to interfere with scholars’ rights to academic freedom and religious freedom, so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. State officials have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards relating to due process, fair trial, and academic and religious freedom.