Appeal to the International Community for Imprisoned Uyghur Scholar Ilham Tohti
The World Uyghur Congress would like to make an urgent appeal to the international community for the release of Uyghur academic, Ilham Tohti. It has been one year to the day that Tohti was arrested in his home in Beijing on January 15, 2014, for exercising his right to free expression. He has remained in detention since then and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment back in September by a Chinese court. The WUC urges states and international organizations to raise awareness of Tohti’s wrongful imprisonment and to pressure the Chinese government to overturn the sentence and clear him of all unfounded charges.
There have been no signs that the situation for the academic is improving as he was denied his appeal of the initial verdict back in November. Chinese authorities appear bent on ensuring that he stands as an example for anyone choosing to speak out against abuses. What is more, seven of Tohti’s students were sentenced earlier this week to up to eight years in prison simply for their association with Tohti – a blatant illustration of how far the regime will go to punish dissent.
This case has sent strong signals to the rest of the Uyghur population. Not only will Uyghurs be even more hesitant to criticize or stand up against the state, but it will self-servingly provide a yardstick by which all other cases will be judged. It has been clear that such a chilling effect has been the aim of the state throughout the trial. Chinese response to Tohti’s actions is also illustrative of the government’s unwillingness to tolerate any kind of peaceful dissent, no matter the circumstances. Professor Tohti has been widely recognized as a moderate voice in opposition to Beijing and does not advocate for independence.
The entire ordeal involving Mr. Tohti has been marred by irregularities and the outright perversion of any fair legal process. Beginning with his questionable arrest in January, denial of family visits or access to legal counsel, denial of adequate food and water and the total disregard for internationally accepted legal rights, the case is a textbook example of how a corrupt legal system is able bend and distort due process for state purposes. Mr. Tohti was unable to meet with his lawyer for six months following his arrest with one of his lawyers being forced to quit the case following political pressure.
Initial reactions to his imprisonment and subsequent sentencing have been clear and visibly supportive of Tohti’s right to free speech. Amnesty International called the subsequent sentence “an affront to justice”. Not only has Mr. Tohti been sentenced to life, but the court’s ruling also stripped him of all assets, effectively leaving his family even further dispossessed. William Nee, China researcher at the organization said that “This shameful judgment has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished through politically motivated charges”.
Following his trial in September, President Obama personally urged China to release Professor Tohti, along with the European Union, US State Department, and White House, whom all released statements condemning the sentencing.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), in an opinion adopted between April 22 and May 1, also found that, “The deprivation of Mr. Tohti is arbitrary, being in contravention of articles 9, 10, 11, 18, 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and urged the government to “take the necessary steps to remedy the situation, which include the immediate release of Mr. Tohti and to grant him compensation for the harm he has suffered during the period of his arbitrary detention”.
Prior to his detention, Mr. Tohti served as a professor of economics at the Minzu University of China in Beijing, where he specialized in research focused on Uyghur-Han Relations and China’s ethnic policies. Alongside his scholarship and teaching, Tohti is revered for establishing and maintaining Uyghur Online, a website dedicated to promoting Uyghur human rights and improved relations between Uyghur and Han Chinese people.
Mr. Tohti has been also recognized by the international community for his staunch opposition to violence, and continued support for Uyghur-Han dialogue, understanding and peace. Amidst his detention, in 2014, he was awarded the honorable PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for his unwavering commitment to free expression in China.
The current case involving Ilham Tohti, although merely the trial of one man, serves as a continued reminder of the relations of power in the region as well as an indication that the central government will continue its campaign of intimidation including extra-judicial killings, mass arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances and harsh discrimination on religious grounds.
We therefore urge all states, human rights organizations and activists to stand together to ensure that justice is done for Ilham Tohti and his family. Tohti remains a prominent symbol in the fight for inherent dignity and human rights for all those that wish to speak out. One year is far too long for a man to remain in a cage. Let us work together to secure his release.