The daughter of detained Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday that Beijing has alienated itself from the minority group by arresting her father despite his peaceful promotion of equal rights and greater autonomy.
Tohti, an outspoken professor at Beijing's Central University for Nationalities, was detained on separatism charges in January and has been held incommunicado since.
His daughter Jewher Ilham, 19, who lives in the U.S. as a student, told members of Congress at a hearing in Washington that the charges against him were “utterly false.”
“In fact, he is exactly the sort of person a rational Chinese political structure would seek to engage with in order to address the conditions of the Uyghur people,” she said.
“Instead, by arresting my father and threatening him with charges that carry the severest of penalties, it has driven many Uyghurs to a point at which they can’t even imagine that their wholly justified grievances can get any sort of a hearing under Chinese rule.”
Ilham said that her family had been dealt a “collective punishment” by Chinese authorities who have frozen the assets of her stepmother Guzelnur and deployed as many as eight people at a time to monitor the family home at all hours of the day.
She said that her seven-year-old brother suffers from nightmares after having seen his father taken away by the police, and had become withdrawn and introverted.
Several of Tohti’s former students have also been arrested and imprisoned, with little known about their whereabouts or well-being, she said.
“I mention these last facts to give you an idea of the kind of collective punishment that the arrest of dissidents entails,” she told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
“But the core matter here is that China has imprisoned a dissident intellectual whose sole ‘crime,’ in spite of the trumped up charges that are being thrown around, was simply advocating human rights and equitable treatment for the Uyghur people.”
In February last year, Ilham planned to travel with her father to the U.S. and stay with him for one month while he took a one-year position at Indiana University, but Tohti was detained by authorities at the airport in Beijing and insisted his daughter continue on to the U.S. alone. She has been studying English at the university since.
In an interview one day ahead of the hearing, Tohti’s wife Guzelnur told RFA’s Uyghur Service that she had been the subject of near-constant harassment by authorities since his arrest.
“Now my situation is very bad with police stationed outside my home, taking down the information of people who want to visit me,” she said.
“One police officer is sleeping outside my door in the building’s corridor every night. He is checking to see who is coming to see me and when, so none of my friends can visit me anymore.”
She said that the family has heard nothing about Tohti’s situation from the authorities, despite his detention taking place nearly three months ago.
“They will not allow us to visit him in jail, so I am very sad and really worried about his well-being,” she said.
“The children miss their father tremendously and really want to see him, which makes me feel even worse.”
She said that her family was “facing a bad situation” and was in financial trouble as a result of Xinjiang authorities putting a hold on Tohti’s bank account.
In an interview last month, she said that she is now reliant on her modest monthly salary from her job in the library of Beijing's Central University for Nationalities to feed the couple’s two sons and pay their school fees.
Guzelnur said that her spirits had lifted when she was informed about Tuesday’s hearing in Washington.
“I am very happy about this because I believe that he has done nothing wrong—he simply used his pen and his voice to speak for the Uyghur community—and I hope he will be released soon,” she said.
“I want people around the world to know about Ilham Tohti and to understand the situation our family is in these days.”
Charged as ‘separatist’
Tohti, who has spoken out for greater autonomy for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), was dragged away from his home in Beijing by dozens of police on Jan. 15.
He was formally arrested on Feb. 20 by the Xinjiang capital Urumqi municipal police department on separatism charges.
It remains unclear whether the government intends to prosecute Tohti for the state security crime of "separatism," which can result in the death penalty, or for the lesser crime of "inciting separatism."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has said that there is no publicly-available evidence of Tohti having engaged in any form of speech or behavior that could be construed by any objective standard as inciting violence or unlawful action.
Uyghur human rights groups have said that Tohti's detention is part of Beijing's broad strategy to drown the voices of the minority Uyghurs and underscores its increasing hard-line stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where a sweeping security crackdown may have led to about 100 killings since April 2013—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
He has spoken out for better implementation of China's regional autonomy laws in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA's Uyghur Service and by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Mihray Abdilim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.