Ilham Tohti served as a professor of economics at the Minzu University of China (formerly the Central University for Nationalities) in Beijing where he specialized in research focused on Uyghur-Han Relations, China’s ethnic policies and Xinjiang. 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 recognized by the international community for his staunch opposition to violence, and continued support for Uyghur-Han dialogue, understanding and peace. In 2014, he was awarded the honorable PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for his unwavering commitment to free expression in China. On October 11, 2016, Tohti was awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. On September 30th, the Council of Europe awarded the prestigious Vaclav Havel Prize to Ilham Tohti. His recent nominations include the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, as well as the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. On October 24th, the European Parliament awarded Tohti the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Arrest & Detention
Following a raid on his home in Beijing, Professor Tohti was arrested on January 15th, 2014, for what Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister stated, “committing crimes and violating the law”. Tohti was also accused of “spreading separatist ideas”, “inciting ethnic hatred” and “advocat[ing] Xinjiang independence” by the Urumqi Bureau of Public Safety shortly thereafter.
More than two dozen police officers reportedly took part in the raid and seized computers and cellphones from the home and arresting his mother in the process. With no initial notice from Chinese authorities, he was then moved to be held in Urumqi where he has remained since.
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.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), in an opinion adopted between April 22 and May 1 2014, 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”.
Professor Tohti was convicted on September 23 to life in prison at the Urumqi People’s Intermediate Court after just a two day trial for advocating separatism. Mr. Tohti’s personal assets were also ordered to be seized by the government as a further punitive measure.
Amnesty International called the sentence “deplorable” with “no basis in reality” with Human Rights Watch stating that his trial has been a “travesty of justice”. The PEN American Center called Tohti’s trial “a farce” and that “[he] should have been a welcome ally in China’s efforts to build a harmonious society”.
Both the US and UK foreign ministries as well as the European Union also weighed in on the decision. A spokesperson from the UK’s foreign office stated that, “Without any transparency, it is hard to have confidence that proper judicial standards were upheld”, which was echoed in a statement made by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arguing that “this appears to be retribution for Professor Tohti’s peaceful efforts to promote human rights for China’s ethnic Uyghur citizens”. Such support signals that there is widespread consensus regarding the inadequate handling of the case. The EU called the sentence “completely unjustified” and deplored that “the due process of law was not respected, in particular with regard to the right to a proper defence”.
Significance of the Sentence
Mr. Tohti’s case has been of great significance and has been given a great deal of attention because of his profile and status in China. This case sends strong signals to the rest of the Uyghur population in that it acts as it sets a kind of precedent in relation to similar cases. In other words, China’s sentencing of Tohti to life in prison demonstrates its total intolerance to all, even moderate, forms of dissent. In addition, the ensuing repression of Uyghurs by the Chinese government, including repression of free cultural and religious expression, has pushed Uyghurs to the edge, significantly contributing to the radicalization in the region.
After Tohti’s sentencing, not only will Uyghurs be even more hesitant to criticize or stand up against the regime, but will self-servingly provide the state with 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.
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.
Since His Sentence
Directly following the sentence, hundreds rallied in New York in support of Professor Tohti on 23 September 2016, at a public candlelight vigil. The PEN American Centre, an organization determined to ensure that people around the world have “the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, ideas and literatures others”, lead the rally. PEN’s Director of Freedom of Expression, Dominic Moran, argued, “Tohti is exactly the kind of influential moderate the Chinese government should have courted in their professed efforts to build social harmony”.
Tohti was officially nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on 15 September 2016 following tireless work from ChinaChange and the Ilham Tohti Initiative, among others. He was nominated by MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk, a Bulgarian member of the ALDE group, and 42 other MEPs. Kyuchyuk called Tohti a “free thinker who believes in human rights, the rule of law,peaceful coexistence among ethnic groups and a democratic future for China”.
Tohti was also nominated for the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders alongside Syrian human rights lawyer and activist, Razan Zaitouneh, and the Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia, on April 27th. The award stands to recognize those who “who have shown deep commitment and courage in the face of personal risk” and to “highlight their work and protect them through increased visibility”.
On September 30th, the Council of Europe awarded the prestigious Vaclav Havel Prize to Professor Tohti. The Ilham Tohti Initiative accepted the prize on his behalf and promised to continue fighting for his freedom. The award honours outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights.
On October 24th, the European Parliament awarded Professor Tohti the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The Sakharov Prize is awarded each year by the European Parliament to honour individuals and organizations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Prepared Statement by Professor Tohti
Below is an abridged version of a statement that Professor Tohti had written to be released in the event of his incarceration (originally released by Radio Free Asia):
“There is a lot of tension around here. In the past few days, I have been under constant surveillance by police vehicles and national security police officers. I have been under heavy supervision.
Furthermore, anyone I have interacted with recently, regardless of ethnicity, Uyghur or Han Chinese, has had to suffer through interrogations by the government. I have realized that I don’t have too many good days ahead of me and I have a feeling that they [the Chinese government] may not have the best intentions in dealing with my situation. Therefore, I feel that it is necessary for me to leave a few words behind before I no longer have the ability to do so.
Firstly, I would like to emphasize that currently, there are no physical marks or bruises on my body. About two months ago, the school [Central University for Nationalities] performed physical examinations on all the teachers, including myself. The results of my physical examinations have been recorded on their computers and were sent to all major hospitals in Beijing. They should be available in their archives. I am currently very healthy and do not have any illnesses.
The last time I fell ill was after I was beaten by a few national security officers at the airport on February 2, 2013.
The police officers punched my heart at the time, and after the incident I had chest pains whenever I felt tired. However, I no longer feel the chest pains and I am in perfectly healthy condition.
If I do pass away in the near future, know that it is not because of natural illness and it certainly will not be suicide. I am a Uyghur, a father, and a righteous man. I do not commend suicide and neither does the Uyghur culture. Therefore it is impossible that I will ever commit suicide. This is my first point.
Secondly, I do not want an appointed lawyer and I will never accept an appointed lawyer under any circumstances. I have my own lawyer who [the Tibetan writer Tsering] Woeser knows. Other people are aware of this as well.
Thirdly, I will never say anything that is against my morals and principles, nor will I ever say anything that may harm my people [Uyghurs]. If I say anything that deviates from my morals after my arrest, know that those are not my words. Any word that is at conflict with my morals or brings harm to the Uyghur people would most likely have been fabricated by the Chinese government.
The only possibility of myself uttering such words would be due to drugs or other substances intended to coerce a false confession. Regardless of the interrogation strategy or the torture method, regardless of what body parts I am about to lose, know that I will never speak words that will work against the interest of Uyghurs, nor will I ever betray the Uyghurs. The only way I may utter such words is under abnormal circumstances. When I say abnormal, I am referring to an abnormal state of mind, perhaps influenced by drugs.
My fourth point is that I have never associated myself with a terrorist organization or a foreign-based group. The path I have pursued all along is an honorable and a peaceful path. I have relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uyghurs.
I have relentlessly appealed for equality for Uyghurs in regards to their individuality, religion, and culture. I have persistently demanded justice from the Chinese government. However, I have never pursued a violent route and I have never joined a group that utilized violence.
I have never started an organization, but I have attracted a number of friends and supporters, both Uyghur and Han Chinese, who share my vision. It would be absolutely unreasonable of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) government to use this fact against me. The only things I have ever wanted and requested are human rights, legal rights, autonomous regional rights, and equality. Uyghurs should be able to receive the same respect given to the Chinese and they should also have the ability to preserve their dignity. This is my fourth point.
I will never view myself as a criminal, and I feel that it is necessary for me to make these points.
Many of my friends have been arrested lately. The number of police officers around me has been gradually increased. They have been watching me even on school campus. I have never been surrounded by this many police officers, even around the July 5th incident in 2009.
Since July of this year , I have not been able to communicate as much with journalists and reporters abroad. Since the website (Uyghurbiz.net) attracts a lot of visitors and activities, the Chinese government is not pleased with it either. I am almost certain that their intentions are corrupt this time, but I would like to say that mine are not. I have always led by example through advocating for diplomatic and peaceful ways to request justice and equality. I believe that Beijing is the ideal place for education, and I believe that this city is a key to achieving equality and justice.
Without the understanding and support of all of the 1.3 billion people in China, it would be extremely difficult for us to achieve our human rights goals. One of my foremost objectives so far has been to introduce and explain who we really are to the Han Chinese population, and this is how I have gained so many friends and supporters who are Han Chinese.
I have never spoken like this before, but I am almost confident that the Chinese government is trying to get rid of me this time.
I remember that three years ago I had refused to comment about my opinions on Zhang Chunxian [the ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region]. However, I have expressed my thoughts and opinions about him recently through my writings, lectures, and letters I have written. I am certain that Zhang Chunxian wasn’t very happy about what I had to say. I have recently received “communications,” and I must say that I don’t feel very safe at the moment. Please save this conversation from today and be sure to keep it until you need to release it, when it is necessary.”
Ilham Tohti’s Sakharov Prize Candidacy
[Excerpted from ChinaChange]
Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木), a Uighur scholar known for his incisive writings on China’s policies in Xinjiang, was named by the European Parliament to be one of the five nominees for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on September 15. Ilham has for years been a vocal advocate for the economic, cultural, and religious rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang. His role as a rational voice for Uighur autonomy led to his arrest in January, 2014, and a sentence to life imprisonment in September that year.
Incidentally, on the same day that Ilham won the nomination, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was received by the European Parliament where he spoke of his admiration for “the spirit of the European Union” and the need for different ethnicities and religions to exist together harmoniously in China.
In an interview from Beijing with Radio Free Asia on September 15, the renowned Chinese dissident Hu Jia (胡佳) remarked: “As both an ordinary Chinese citizen and the 2008 Sakharov Prize recipient, I feel that if one person in all of China deserved the Sakharov nomination and was qualified to receive the award, Ilham Tohti would be first on the list.”
“Ilham is a thorn in the side of the Communist Party,” he added. “He’s the conscience of the Uighurs, and has been given the most severe sentence. The people he represents have been repressed and spurned, so there’s a lot of pent-up hostility and bad blood. But the key to relieving this pressure is Ilham’s freedom. He was nominated for this award by members of a parliament elected by the people to represent Europe’s values, so it has a special place, and the Chinese authorities know the weight of it. They know that for whoever gets this prize, it will give both that person and the human rights issue they represent a lot of attention. This would put enormous pressure on the Chinese government. So there’s no doubt that they’re going to exert pressure on members of the European Parliament.”
Hu Jia said that Ilham Tohti’s wife and child just returned from Xinjiang to Beijing, but that they’ve been warned and intimidated by the authorities not to speak to anyone about Ilham.
Ilham Tohti’s daughter Jewher told China Change in an interview that her step-mother, Ilham’s wife Guzelnur, took the couple’s two children back to Xinjiang for their summer vacation, and that they visited him on one occasion, speaking face-to-face for about an hour. They were only allowed to speak about family affairs. She didn’t speak further about the circumstances of the meeting, but said that Ilham seemed to be healthy.
Ilham’s Sakharov nomination has Hu Jia feeling both glad and anxious. It so happened that, on another occasion recently he recounted how, in 2008 while in prison, the Communist Party authorities tried to force him to reject the prize:
In 2008, I was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” because I engaged in activities to promote human rights and liberty before the Olympic Games.
The European Parliament awarded me the Sakharov Prize, and I was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I was in prison, the head of the Beijing municipal political police led a group of public security and foreign ministry officials to pay a visit to me in prison — they were putting me under intense pressure, trying to force me to make a public announcement that I rejected both the Sakharov Prize and the nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In exchange, these officials said that they would reduce my sentence by 2.5 years, and also pay me double the cash award of the Sakharov Prize, as economic “compensation.” These secret political police, and the jailers in their charge, lobbied me with this proposal on up to seven occasions. I flatly rejected all of these despicable, filthy political dealings. Thus, I am deeply aware of how moral support, and awards from the international community, place the Communist Party’s security organs and foreign affairs officials under enormous pressure.
Hu suspects that Ilham will receive the same treatment if he’s also given the award—though he suspects that the Communist Party will first attempt to interfere with the process of deciding the laureate in the coming weeks.
Hu Jia told RFA that Ilham “opposes all forms of violence and bloodshed. If he’s awarded the Sakharov Prize, then his ideas, what he advocates, what he has attempted to realize, his wish that we’re all able to live with dignity as part of a big family, will be recognized by the entire world. The Xinjiang question will be looked at squarely by the world, as well as the question of the Uyghurs.”
Hu Jia added that not only Han Chinese like himself support the nomination, but Tibetans, including the well-known writer Woeser (唯色), are also behind it.
Elliot Sperling, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at the Indiana University Bloomington, told Radio Free Asia: “China’s human rights situation is getting worse and worse, and the Party’s ethnic policies in Tibet and Xinjiang are being resisted by the people. The Communist Party doesn’t want to reflect on why its policies have been unsuccessful—instead, they look for scapegoats. Ilham Tohti is a scapegoat. The fact that he has received the nomination shows that the world is not going to be blind to this.”
James Leibold, a professor of China’s minority policies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, used Twitter to encourage the European Parliament to give Ilham Tohti the prize. “No more worthy recipient of the Sakharov Prize than Ilham Tohti. It’s time for MEPs to resist pressure from China,” he wrote.
In March 2015, Hu Jia met Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, for half an hour, during which time he brought up Ilham’s case, as well as his support for his receipt of the Sakharov Prize. Similarly, in July of this year in Beijing, he gave a letter to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to be delivered to the European Council’s president Donald Tusk, who was participating in a summit meeting in the Chinese capital.
The letter said, in part: “If I were to meet you and meet your for only one minute, I would use those 60 seconds to tell you about one Chinese citizen: Ilham Tohti.”
Perhaps as a result of the absence of sustained international attention, Ilham’s family in China continues to suffer persecution. Jewher Ilham told China Change that Ilham’s niece, a young nurse in Kashgar, was taken away by police earlier in the year after her cell phone was checked by police when she was at a mall buying clothes (Uighurs say it’s now become common for the police to simply stop them in the street and forcibly examine their phones). The police detained her after seeing photos of her uncle, Ilham Tohti, on the phone, and possibly also because of her refusal to cooperate with them, Jewher speculated. She said that she hopes that someone will raise the case of her cousin to the Chinese government.
Statements from International NGOs & Others
China: Deplorable life sentence for Uighur academic — 24 September 2014
Life Imprisonment of Tohti Undermines Chinese Legal System — 12 February 2016
Uighur academic Ilham Tohti held incommunicado, name censored online — 30 September 2016
Human Rights Watch:
China: Baseless Charge Against Uighur Scholar — 30 July 2014
Timeline of Ilham Tohti’s Case — 15 September 2014
China: Uighur Scholar’s Trial a Travesty of Justice — 15 September 2014
China Wants You to Forget Ilham Tohti — 20 September 2016
Reporters Without Borders:
Uyghur citizen-journalist Ilham Tohti detained again — 17 January 2014
Where has Ilham Tohti been held since 15 January? — 29 January 2014
Blogger sentenced to life in prison — 23 September 2014
Scholars at Risk:
Letter to Xi Jinping regarding Ilham Tohti’s Detention — 15 April 2014
Statements by Governments & Other Institutions
Council of Europe awards Ilham Tohti with the Vaclev Havel Prize 2019 — 30 September 2019
EU makes a condemnatory statement — 23 September 2014
EU MEPs shortlist Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize 2019 — 8 October 2019
US Department of State condemns the conviction and sentencing of Ilham Tohti — 23 September 2014
The White House Press Office made a statement concerning his sentencing — 23 September 2014
Tohti’s Daughter Pleads for her Father’s Case at the UN Meeting on Religious Freedom —- 23 September 2019
Tohti Awarded the 2019 Sakharov Prize – 24 October 2019