'We Shouldn’t Allow Ilham Tohti to Become a Second Liu Xiaobo'

Veteran Chinese dissident Hu Jia calls for international scrutiny to protect jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti

University economics professor Ilham Tohti, who was charged with promoting ethnic separatism and was handed a life sentence by a Chinese court on Sept. 23, 2014, in a file photo.

Hu Jia, a Chinese human rights activist and critic of the Communist Party of China, has closely followed the case of Ilham Tohti, an outspoken economics professor who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority. Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for promoting ethnic separatism on Sept. 23, 2014 following a two-day show trial and is serving his sentence in No.1 Prison in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the human rights situation continues to deteriorate. Hu, himself a former political prisoner and winner of the 2008 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, has often served as a conduit for information from Tohti’s family to the outside world. He spoke to Mihray Abdilim of RFA’s Uyghur Service about his fears that Tohti could suffer the fate of 2010 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of liver cancer last year in a Chinese prison, where his treatment was late and inadequate.

For two years, Ilham hasn’t seen his wife and children. The political situation in the Uyghur region is so terrible that his wife Guzelnur decided not to go back there this year. For a long time, the Chinese government has been implementing a policy called ‘Serve Prison Sentence elsewhere’ mainly targeting the high-profile political prisoners. Because Beijing is the political capital where the embassies of all the democratic countries are located, and the main offices of the UN are also based here. As most political events take place in Beijing, most people who are interested in politics gather here as well. Petitioners from all over the country also come here, and we can say that this is where people who were persecuted in past gather as well.

From the Chinese authorities’ point of view, Beijing’s stability is their top priority. That is why they send political prisoners away from Beijing. Liu Xiaobo was sent to Jinzhou prison in Liaoning Province, and when I was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in 2008 on charges of ‘inciting subversion of state power’ I was sent to Chaobai prison in Tianjin.  Ilham Tohti holds a Beijing resident permit (hukou), and he should have the right to be tried in Beijing and serve his sentence in Beijing. But the authorities sent him to Xinjiang, which is now completely under police and military control. All of Ilham’s relatives are living in extreme fear, they don’t dare to have contact with anyone outside the region. They are reluctant to provide any news regarding Ilham Tohti due to fear. Two years ago, when Ilham Tohti’s wife Guzelnur visited Xinjiang, her relatives took her phone away from her. She cut off all communication with friends here, including myself. During the last two years they were unable to visit Ilham, and if they cannot visit him in summer, it will have been three years of him not being able to see his family. This is a very tragic and unfair situation for a family.

International pressure is vital. Ilham Tohti has already been awarded three major human rights prizes. The authorities are well aware that he has not been forgotten by the world. He has always attracted huge attention and support from the international community, so if there is any change in his situation the world would know it. I served in Chadian County prison in Tianjin from the May 7 until October 10, 2008 and was then transferred to a prison in Daxin district in Beijing, where I completed my prison sentence. Serving my sentence in Beijing made a big difference in my life, because it made it convenient for my parents, my wife and my daughter to visit me frequently, which helped me mentally. My family together with the international community played an important role in moving me from the prison in Tianjin to Beijing.

I was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 2008, and October 10 was the eve of the Nobel Prize for Peace Award Ceremony. I believe my nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize was an important factor in my transfer to Beijing. Therefore, the awards which Ilham Tohti has received could play an important role in improving his prison conditions. We should continue to promote him, campaign for his innocence, and help him win more prestigious international prizes in order to keep him in the international spotlight. All of these actions can help him survive in prison.

Whenever I meet with the international human rights community, I always highlight two people’s cases: One is Ilham Tohti and the other is Gao Zhisheng.  Since Liu Xiaobo was killed by the Chinese Communist regime, I am exceptionally worried that these two individuals may also end up with the same fate as Liu Xiaobo. Mr. Gao Zhisheng has been listed as one of the most dangerous individuals in China, as well as professor Ilham Tohti. Since he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his advocacy work, he has gained huge support and respect from the Uyghur people. I believe the right to self-determination of the Uyghur people will be respected and honored once China becomes a democratic country.

Professor Ilham Tohti is one of the most prominent Uyghurs in the world, and he has been awarded or nominated for several international human rights prizes. He used to be the only voice of Uyghurs in mainland China. He is the seed of hope of the Uyghur people, and making sure that he is kept alive while in prison is one of the most important duties of us all. Being a Han Chinese, the best I can do is to make every effort to prevent Ilham Tohti from dying in prison like Liu Xiaobo.  Whenever I meet the foreign diplomats in Beijing, I discuss Ilham Tohti’s case first. I have spoken with the American Ambassador many times regarding his case. The leaders of the free world and foreign diplomats must frequently demand information regarding Ilham Tohti’s prison conditions as well as his health, especially under the current political climate in the Uyghur region.

Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service.