Human rights activists on Thursday called on China to release jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, sentenced seven years ago to life in prison for “separatism,” for his advocacy work in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, while his daughter says his family does not even know his whereabouts.
An economist at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, Tohti pushed for a peaceful solution for Uyghur issues and equal rights for the persecuted group, submitting his proposals to the Chinese government for improving relations between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
Tohti also ran the Uyghur Online website, formerly at uyghurbiz.net, set up in 2006 as an advisory platform for Uyghur intellectuals to promote voices from within their community.
The website also drew attention to the discrimination facing Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) under Beijing’s rule, as authorities tried to assimilate the ethnic group by restricting religious practices and use of the Uyghur language.
The Chinese government shut down the website several times prior to Tohti’s formal arrest in January 2014, citing the politically sensitive nature of its content. He was convicted by the Urumqi Intermediate Court on Sept. 23 of the same year following a two-day trial.
“It has been seven years since China’s unlawful imprisonment of Professor Ilham Tohti. While the international community has called on China to release him from prison … China has neither released him nor revealed his current whereabouts and health condition,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress.
“We call on the United Nations to urge China to release Professor Tohti,” he told RFA. “The European Parliament, which awarded him the 2019 Sakharov Prize, should continue to push for professor Tohti’s freedom.”
The repression of the Uyghurs has gotten progressively worse since then. China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a network of detention camps since 2017.
Beijing has said that the camps are vocational training centers set up to fight extremism among Uyghurs and has denied widespread and documented allegations that it has mistreated Muslims living in Xinjiang, but camp survivors and former guards have described widespread abuses in interviews with RFA and others.
Other abuses against members of the 12-million-strong Uyghur population include torture, sexual assaults, forced abortions and the sterilization of detained Uyghur women, and efforts to reduce population growth in the region thorough birth control and population transfer policies.
As international awareness of the situation in XUAR has grown, the United States and the legislatures in several European countries have deemed the treatment of Uyghurs and others in the XUAR as constituting genocide and crimes against humanity.
‘We should speak out’
Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, said that her family doesn’t know whether authorities have kept her father in the same prison during the past seven years or moved him.
“Since 2017, nobody from our family has been allowed to visit him,” she told RFA.
“We were told that he was in the No. 1 Prison in Urumqi [in Chinese, Wulumuqi] before, but since we were not allowed to visit him, we are not sure if he is in the same prison or not,” Jewher said. “So far nobody has had any contact with my father. Whenever we call the prison, they never pick up the phone.”
Tohti’s daughter also said that authorities also had sentenced one of her cousins to 10 years in the prison.
“The Chinese government should not only allow my family to visit him and visit my cousin, but they should also be released immediately along with all the other innocent Uyghur people who are locked up in the prison and in the camps,” she said.
The Germany-based Ilham Tohti Initiative commemorated the seventh anniversary of Tohti’s sentencing with a plea to governments and international bodies to press for his release.
“[W]e call on the Chinese government to publish official information on [the] whereabouts and conditions of Ilham Tohti, unconditionally release him and his students, and urge the international community, including the U.N. human rights institutions, the governments, the European Union and all human rights NGOs to press for his freedom,” said a statement the group issued Thursday.
During a video conference on Thursday hosted by the Ilham Tohti Initiative, Chinese human rights activist and lawyer Teng Biao said that Tohti was given a harsh sentence of life imprisonment, whereas a Han Chinese dissident who was convicted on “separatism” charges would have received a sentence of two to five years in jail.
“Most Han Chinese people don’t know what’s happening in Xinjiang, and we don’t say anything [about] the genocide,” he said. “So, we should speak out for Ilham Tohti, for the persecuted Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities.”
“I really hope the world, especially the Western democracies, can stop their appeasement policy and [not] be an accomplice of the Communist Party leadership,” Teng added.
Enver Can, founding president of the Ilham Tohti Initiative and moderator of the panel, said there is a changing situation in Europe which sees the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) getting too powerful and too dangerous for Western democracies.
“I hope very much … that they build a grand coalition and stand up against the CCP expansion and against the CCP’s violation of human rights, especially against the Uyghurs in this case,” he said.
Tohti, 51, has received more than 10 international human rights awards since his sentencing, including the Martin Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016 and the Sakharov Award for “Freedom of Thought” in 2019. He also was nominated for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s Peace Prize in 2020.
Reported by Alim Seytoff and Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.