Family of Jailed Uyghur Scholar Faces Severe Hardship, Social Isolation

Ilham Tohti and his wife in a photo sent to RFA's Uyghur Service via WeChat on Jan 13, 2014, two days before his detention.

The wife of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti is facing extreme hardship and increasing isolation as she struggles to raise the couple's young sons in Beijing, she told RFA.

Guzelnur has been left with scant income to care for the couple's young sons in Beijing while her husband serves a life sentence for "separatism," she said.

"Sometimes I get financial help from friends or relatives, but they've got their own kids too, and their own expenses to meet," she said in an interview on Tuesday.

"I make 3,500 yuan (U.S.$540) a month, and the nursery fees for my youngest are 1,200 yuan a month, while it costs 300 yuan a month for my eldest just to eat lunch in school," she said.

"Sometimes a friend called Huang helps out by buying the kids some clothes, but he has his own family too."

Guzelnur said she has also asked Tibetan poet and writer Woeser for help when things get tough.

She said she is unable to take time out from her children's routine to visit her husband, who is serving his time in the remote northwestern Xinjiang region in spite of having made a life in Beijing.

Life sentence

Tohti, a former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing was sentenced to life in prison following his conviction on a charge of “separatism” by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang on Sept. 23, 2014.

Asked if she visits her husband, Guzelnur said: "There is nobody to take care of the kids, and I am busy doing it."

She said authorities at Urumqi's No. 1 Prison, where Tohti is being held, are refusing to allow any items to be delivered to him by visitors, including clothing.

But she said the family has plans to travel back to the region during the summer holidays.

"I will be back at my parental home for those two months," Guzelnur said.

Socially isolated

Beijing-based rights activist and family friend Hu Jia said Guzelnur has also become socially isolated since Tohti's incarceration, as many of the couple's former friends have withdrawn contact for fear of political reprisals.

"Guzelnur and the two kids have been living a very lonely life in Beijing since Ilham Tohti was detained," Hu said in an interview on Tuesday.

"The Uyghurs who live here don't dare have anything to do with them because they are afraid, and they are in economic hardship too," he said.

Hu said Tohti, who was jailed over content posted on his UighurOnline website, is currently serving the longest sentence handed down to a political prisoner in China.

"His kids only get to visit him once a year, during the summer vacation," Hu said. "I call on the international community to show more concern and support for his family and the hardship they face."

Asked if she had considered leaving the country, or sending her children overseas to study, like the families of a number of other jailed dissidents, Guzelnur said none of the family has a current passport.

"None of us has a passport, and we don't even have a household registration here in Beijing; it's back in [Xinjiang]," she said. "We haven't managed to get it transferred yet."

"It's too hard for us to get a passport [in Xinjiang]."

Migration controls

China's nationwide "hukou," or household registration system, gives families access to local services like education and health care, while unregistered people in China are excluded from social subsistence and health care reimbursement schemes, and are vulnerable to official harassment and fines.

Throughout most of China’s larger cities, migration is strictly monitored, and only arrivals with advanced degrees or special skills are able to qualify for a transfer of their “hukou” registration card.

While the government recently eased restrictions on household registration in Xinjiang, critics said the move was aimed at promoting ethnic majority Han Chinese resettlement to the area, with the mostly Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs subject to a much more stringent application process.

Uyghurs and members of other non-Han Chinese groups in Xinjiang face huge barriers to applying for passports, and those who already hold them have been ordered in some regions to hand them in to police stations.

China has been keen to portray its Uyghur population as potential terrorists after a wave of violent incidents hit the region following a crackdown on deadly ethnic riots in Urumqi in July 2009.

Many Uyghurs try to leave China illegally, saying they are fleeing systematic persecution by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which then puts strong diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries to return the fugitives to China rather than treating them as refugees.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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