10th anniversary of Uyghur academic’s arrest marked with calls for release

Ilham Tohti’s daughter says she can’t be sure her father is even alive.
By RFA Uyghur
2024.01.16
10th anniversary of Uyghur academic’s arrest marked with calls for release Uyghur academic and blogger Ilham Tohti speaks to students at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing in 2009.
(Elizabeth Dalziel/AP)

The U.S. State Department, lawmakers and human rights groups marked the 10th anniversary of jailed Uyghur academic and blogger Ilham Tohti’s arrest on Monday with renewed calls for China to release him, while his daughter urged Beijing to provide proof that he remains alive.

An outspoken economics professor who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Tohti was arrested on Jan. 15, 2014. While teaching, he regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

He was sentenced to life in prison on Sept. 23 the same year following a two-day show trial on charges of promoting separatism and has not been seen or heard from since 2017.

On Monday, the State Department issued a statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Tohti, who it said remains in detention “simply for advocating for the rights of Uyghurs and other minority groups” in China.

“His life sentence demonstrates [China’s] efforts to silence those brave enough to speak out against the government’s discriminatory practices and other human rights abuses, which include genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” it said.

The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China also called for an end to his “unjust” detention in a post to X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“His release must be sought and an end to genocide in #Xinjiang demanded of PRC at #UPR review,” the commission said, using the official name of the People’s Republic of China and referring to the Universal Periodic Review.

The UPR is a Human Rights Council mechanism that calls for each U.N. member state to undergo a peer review of its human rights records every 4.5 years. The review, which will be China’s fourth, is scheduled to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan. 23.

At Tohti’s sentencing, the court cited his criticism of Beijing’s ethnic policies, his interviews with overseas media outlets, and his work founding and running the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net, which was shut down by Chinese authorities in 2014.

But while Beijing has denounced the academic as a “separatist,” others have highlighted what they say is his commitment to peaceful interethnic dialogue between members of his ethnic group and China’s Han Chinese majority.

Last month, Tohti was nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the academic has received more than 10 international human rights awards since his sentencing, including the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016 and the Sakharov Award for “Freedom of Thought” in 2019.

Tohit was short-listed for the peace prize in 2020 and 2023.

Demand for proof of life

In an interview with RFA Uyghur on Tuesday, his daughter Jewher Ilham, demanded proof of life for her father from the Chinese government, noting that over the past 10 years, her family was only allowed to visit with him once every three months from 2014-2017.

“We lost all communication with my father after 2017, so I don’t even know if he is still alive,” she said, adding that the only time the Chinese government and media mentioned Tohti was in 2019, when they criticized the European Parliament for giving the Sakharov Award to “a criminal.” 

“My hope is that my father will be awarded the 2024 Nobel Peace Prize because … [I believe it] will help pave the way for his freedom,” she said. “What’s most important to me is for my father to return home and reunite with my brothers and me.”

Rights groups on Monday marked the anniversary by calling for renewed attention to Tohti’s detention, as well as for governments and academic institutions to increase pressure on the Chinese government regarding his case.

“China’s decision [to imprison Tohti] demonstrated an absolute refusal to consider the concerns of the Uyghur people, and his fate warned the entire Uyghur society that even peaceful and moderate voices were no longer tolerated,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress.

Uyghur Human Rights Project Executive Director Omer Kanat called Tohti’s continued detention a “travesty,” noting that “peaceful, constructive advocates for the Uyghur cause have routinely been brutally and cruelly punished by the Chinese government.”

Translated by Alim Seytoff. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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