Rights groups have called for international pressure on China’s government to unconditionally release Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti on the third anniversary of his sentencing to life in prison for “separatism” after he spoke out in support of equal rights and greater autonomy for members of his ethnic group.
An outspoken economics professor who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, Tohti was handed a life sentence on Sept. 23, 2014 following a two-day show trial.
The complete version of the ruling has never been made public, but the court decision cited Tohti’s interviews with overseas Uyghur, Chinese, and English-language media outlets, his commentaries on events concerning Uyghurs in Xinjiang, his criticism of Beijing’s ethnic policies, and his work founding and running the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net, which was shut down by authorities in 2014.
Over the weekend, the Germany-based Ilham Tohti Initiative slammed authorities in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi’s No. 1 Prison for holding Tohti under conditions it said were in violation of Chinese law and demanded Beijing free the scholar, whose detention was termed “arbitrary” by a United Nations panel in 2014.
“In spite of [what] the Chinese law stipulates, he is not enjoying his right of proper visitations and is de facto kept incommunicado,” the Initiative said in a statement, adding that such treatment amounted to “a calculated and cruel deprivation.”
The group cited a combination of reduced visits, denial of communication, gag orders, and family reprisals, which it said had been “carefully engineered to punish the Uyghur scholar with degrading treatment and psychological torture, while at the same time keeping the attention on his plight from the outside world to a minimum.”
The Initiative noted that Tohti had promoted peace and dialogue between majority Han Chinese and Uyghur communities, and specifically opposed separatism, the use of terror to voice grievances, and any act that sparks ethnic tensions, as well as government policies he said marginalize the Uyghur people.
By speaking out, the group said, he had been “fulfilling the duty of a public intellectual.”
“We call on the Chinese government to unconditionally release Prof. Ilham Tohti … and urge the International Community, including the UN human Rights Institutions, the governments, the European Union and all human rights NGOs to press for his freedom,” the statement said.
Treatment in prison
The Initiative’s call for Tohti’s freedom came a day after rights watchdog ChinaChange.org called on the U.N. to ensure that the Uyghur scholar is receiving fair treatment in prison under Chinese law.
In a statement, the group noted that Tohti has only been granted one strictly monitored family visit every three months, despite laws allowing one visit each month, had been held in solitary confinement until at least early 2016, and has been deprived of the right to communicate with family and friends.
ChinaChange.org said Tohti had been denied the right to apply for a retrial since losing an appeal in November 2014, and that his family had apparently received a gag order from authorities to prevent them from speaking about his case.
The group also expressed concerns over Tohti’s health condition, noting that his prison provides little Muslim food, and that his wife reported that he had lost a substantial amount of weight after she visited him in July last year.
In addition to urging investigations into the conditions under which Tohti is being held, ChinaChange.org urged U.N. human rights institutions and governments to “continue to press for the total freedom of the Uyghur scholar,” as well as seven of his students, who were sentenced to up to eight years in prison after assisting him on Uighurbiz.net, and his 25-year-old niece, who was given a 10-year sentence for possessing photos of him.
Earlier this month, Sarah Brooks of International Service for Human Rights had highlighted Tohti’s case while addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council as part of its call on Beijing to end its practice of detaining lawyers and critics of the government.
In response, Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed Chinese diplomat as saying Tohti’s case had “nothing to do with human rights,” and that the scholar “was trying to justify the acts of terror, divide the country and incite hatred, which no country could tolerate.”
‘An essential player’
On Monday, Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that Tohti must not be forgotten by the international community.
“He is a peaceful, thoughtful government critic who we think is an essential player in the discussion between the central government and multiple different ethnic minority communities, and the fact that he has instead been treated as a subversive and given a life sentence says everything you need to know about how hostile Beijing is to open criticism of these issues,” she said.
“Everybody should be insisting on his immediate and unconditional release … and I think it is very important to talk about him a lot, particularly as an exemplar of tolerance and of peaceful debate about ethnic policies in China—not to allow this narrative that he is somehow a criminal or a terrorist to crowd that out.”
Ilham Tohti was the recipient of the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center in 2014 and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.