Highly Politicized Trial of Ilham Tohti Begins in Urumqi
The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) remains deeply concerned about the fate of Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti, who has been imprisoned since January 2014 and finally began his trial on September 17. Mr. Tohti denied charges of separatism leveled against him on the first day of the trial and the WUC continues to closely follow the proceedings. The entire case against and detention of Mr. Tohti has been characterized by clear misconduct on the part of Chinese authorities and contravention of internationally recognized human rights norms. As a result, the WUC retains little confidence that the trial will be conducted in a fair and competent way and urges the international community to exercise due scrutiny over the process and outcome.
The case has been politically motivated throughout and marked by consistent irregularities. His arrest on January 15 in Beijing immediately raised questions in relation to the credibility of the charges. He was quickly moved to a detention centre in Urumqi with few details being released concerning his well being or a detailed account of the charges leveled against him. Not only has he been denied the opportunity to see family members throughout the eight months, he has also been consistently denied access to legal representation. Mr. Tohti was only able to see his lawyer, Li Fangping, months after being detained, to discuss the merits of the case and to review the available evidence against him. Fangping has also been limited in his effort through the state’s refusal to provide even basic evidence, such as alleged video recordings of the professor’s lectures purporting to show Tohti strongly advocating for an independent East Turkestan.
Keeping in mind the fact that Mr. Tohti is widely considered a moderate voice in his criticism of the state and has never advocated for independence, this has not prevented the Chinese from pinning separatist charges on him. The Uyghur scholar has consistently acted within the bounds of existing Chinese law. International human rights organizations have supported his innocence throughout and state that his detention has been part of a broader strategy to forcefully suppress Uyghur dissent or even discussion of the ongoing discrimination faced on a daily basis.
There has been an explicit pattern on the part of the state to silence those who speak out against their policies and it is clear that the case against Mr. Tohti is being used to set an example for those that choose to exercise their valid and internationally recognized rights to free expression and opinion. In doing so, China sends a strong signal to Uyghurs living in East Turkestan that its repressive policies will likely continue. The legitimate grievances expressed continue to be disregarded in favour of these policies.
The problem in East Turkestan is not terrorism, counter-terrorism, nor extremism as China claims, but a political force from the centre motivated by the pursuit of unrestrained, unequal power over those that are becoming increasingly unable to respond. The
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 a reasonable indication of the direction that the central government is heading with regards to dissent.
We must also reiterate that by moving towards tighter restraints on free expression, particularly among academics and other opinion leaders, resentment for the state can only grow. The way forward will be to loosen restrictions on free speech and allow adequate space to civil society to operate and represent the peoples’ interests. It is only then that the region, and the rest of China for that matter, will see real developmental progress. Civil and political rights do not act in opposition to socioeconomic rights, as is so often suggested by the state, but as mutually reinforcing entities that, when supported, can induce genuine human development.
The WUC is closely following the ongoing case and anticipating a decision in the coming days, but remains doubtful that Chinese authorities will conduct the trial in a just and honest way. The WUC, however, would like to thank and welcome those states that sent delegates to Urumqi, including representatives from the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France and Australia, in order to monitor the trial. We appreciate the continued support despite Chinese efforts to deny their entry to the courtroom. The international community retains significant influence over this issue, with a number of states including the UK, US, Germany, Canada, and Italy raising the case at the Human Rights Council’s 27th session this week. We therefore urge all states to stand together to ensure that the requisite justice is done and Mr. Tohti is released.