News About Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti on the Third Anniversary of His Sentencing: No News
China Change, 22 September 2017
By China Change — September 23, 2017, marks the 3rd anniversary of the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti’s sentencing to life in prison for peacefully speaking out for the economic, cultural, political and religious rights of the 10 million Uighur people inhabiting the northwestern region known as Xinjiang.
A Summary of the Case
Ilham Tohti is the most renowned Uighur intellectual in the People’s Republic of China. For over two decades he has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Chinese over the present-day repressive religious, cultural and political conditions exercised against the Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic people living mostly in modern China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. As a result of his efforts he was sentenced to life in prison in September 2014 following a two-day show trial. Despite political persecution in the years leading up to his trial, he remained a voice of moderation and reconciliation.
Ilham was born in 1969 in Atush, Xinjiang, and began his studies in 1985 at the institution that is today the Central Minzu University in Beijing, long known for studies of minorities. He eventually became a faculty member at the same university and a recognized expert on economic and social issues pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia. As a scholar, he has been forthright about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, and his work led to official surveillance and harassment that began as early as 1994. From time to time he was barred from teaching, and after 1999 he was unable to publish in mainstream venues in China.
In order to make the economic, social, and developmental issues confronting the Uighurs known to China’s wider population, Ilham established the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net in 2006 to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Chinese on the Uighur Issue. Over the course of its existence it was shut down periodically and people writing for it were harassed. Ilham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism and sought reconciliation by bringing to light Uighur grievances, information the Chinese state has sought to keep behind a veil of enforced silence.
Following massive Chinese repression in Xinjiang in 2009, Professor Tohti was taken into custody for weeks for posting information on Uighurs who had been arrested, killed and “disappeared.” In subsequent years he was subjected to periodic house arrests and barred from leaving the country.
The show trial three years ago convicted Ilham Tohti of the crime of “separatism.” The court decision, which has never been made public in full, cited interviews with overseas Uighur, Chinese and English-language media outlets, his commentaries on events in, or concerning, the Uighurs and Xinjiang, his criticism of Chinese government’s ethnic policies, and his work with his students in founding and running the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net, which had been repeatedly suspended and, after its server was moved to overseas, endured denial of service attacks until its complete shutdown in early 2014.
In words and actions, Ilham Tohti has for years promoted peace and dialogue between the Han Chinese and Uighur communities. He opposed separatism, the use of terror to voice grievances, and any acts that fan ethnic animus, as well as government policies that undermine the Uighur language and economically marginalize the Uighur people. As a Uighur intellectual specializing in Xinjiang issues and Central Asian sociology, economics, and geopolitics, he took it upon himself to critique current affairs concerning Xinjiang and its people, faithfully fulfilling the duty of a public intellectual.
Ilham Tohti is the recipient of the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center in 2014, and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016. He was one of the four nominees for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2016. This summer Ilham Tohti received the 2017 Human Rights Award from the city of Weimar in Germany.
Conditions of Imprisonment
Ilham Tohti has been serving life in prison in the First Prison of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Reginon in Urumqi since December 2014 after his appeal was dismissed and sentence upheld without a court hearing on November 21, 2014.
Visits: Since then, he has been allowed to receive only one family visit every three months, whereas Chinese law allows one visit per month. Each visit lasts less than one hour. In meetings, Ilham and relatives are not allowed to speak about anything except “family matters.” We estimate that, from the time he first received family visit in prison in June 2015 to the present, Ilham Tohti has received a total of less than 10 hours visitation over the span of more than two years. This is a calculated and cruel deprivation.
Solitary confinement: Until at least early 2016, Ilham Tohti’s wife said he had been held in solitary confinement. Since then there has been no update on whether this is still the case.
Right to communication: He has been deprived of the right to communicate with family and friends. Letters sent by his wife have not been received, nor has she ever received letters from him.
Gag order: From the first few visits in 2015 and early 2016, we were able to get brief updates on Ilham’s condition by the brothers and wife who visited him. But such updates have since dried up completely. It seems that relatives have received a gag order from the authorities, not even telling intermediaries who could then relay information to media outlets. His wife last spoke to Radio Free Asia in late summer of 2016 and was promptly visited by state agents afterwards. Ilham’s daughter, who currently studies at Indiana University, found herself cut off from family circles on Chinese social media and has been unable to gather information about her father’s condition.
Request for retrial (申诉, shen-su) suppressed: In late 2015 and early 2016, Ilham Tohti urged his relatives to apply for a retrial (shen-su). Under Chinese law, such an application can be filed at any stage of the jail term by any prisoner who believes he or she is wrongfully convicted and a victim of a miscarriage of justice. In the summer of 2016, friends learned privately that Ilham Tohti made another attempt to shen-su but was stopped by the authorities who threatened the family that their visitation rights would be revoked if they pressed the matter.
Health concerns: The prison provides little Muslim food. After visiting him in prison in July 2016, his wife reported that he had lost a lot of weight. Given the recent death of Liu Xiaobo in prison, the health issue of China’s political prisoners has become an issue of concern. We are deeply worried about the health of Ilham Tohti, both physical and mental.
Niece was given a 10-year sentence for possessing photos of Ilham Tohti on her cell phone: Ilham’s niece, a 25-year-old nurse in the city of Atush, was taken away by police in early 2016 for possessing on her cellphone photographs of Ilham Tohti and two articles about him by Radio Free Asia, as she was stopped by police on her way to a shopping mall. Sources told us that she was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and her grieved mother has fallen ill. A search of the website of the city’s court does not yield any information about her case. (In fact the website stopped posting any court decision since January 2015.) We demand to know everything about her case.
The seven students of Ilham Tohti: The student volunteers who worked with Ilham Tohti on net have been sentenced to up to eight years in prison, but information about where they are being held and their condition is unavailable despite continuous efforts by multiple parties to find out more about their cases.
We believe that the combination of reduced visits, denial of communication, gag orders, and family reprisals, have been carefully engineered to punish the Uighur scholar with degrading treatment and psychological torture, while at the same time keeping the attention on his plight from the outside world to a minimum.
We ask the UN human rights institutions and governments to:
Make inquiries about the health of Ilham Tohti;
Ensure that Ilham Tohti receives monthly family visit as Chinese law stipulates;
Ensure his right to communication with friends and family is respected;
Ensure that Ilham Tohti be allowed to file a shen-su according to Chinese law, without he or his relatives suffering retaliation;
Make inquiries about Ilham Tohti’s 25-year-old niece in Atush, Xinjiang;
Continue to press for the total freedom of the Uighur scholar and his students.
China must not be given a pass for its human rights atrocities. Not any more.
Reported by China Change