Rights activists and Uyghur advocacy groups today renewed their calls for the release from prison of Uyghur academic and blogger Ilham Tohti, who was arrested four years ago on charges of promoting separatism and is now serving a life term behind bars.
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 sentenced on Sept. 23, 2014 following a two-day show trial.
The court decision cited Tohti’s 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.
This week, the Germany-based Ilham Tohti Initiative called again on Beijing to immediately and unconditionally free the jailed writer and professor, calling the conditions of his imprisonment a “calculated and cruel deprivation” of his rights to family visits and outside communication.
“[All this has] 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,” Initiative President Enver Can said.
“We are especially concerned about the reports that his wife and children would not be allowed to visit him during the current year of 2018,” Can said.
Instead of urging the separation of Xinjiang—the Uyghur people’s historic homeland—from China, Tohti had called only for China to implement its own regional autonomy laws and had consistently promoted peace and dialogue between the Han Chinese and Uyghur communities, Can said.
“Thus, Ilham Tohti is a prisoner of conscience, who is being cruelly punished for peacefully challenging the Chinese government’s policies toward ethnic minorities.”
Massive rights violations
In a Jan. 17 statement, the international press freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described Tohti’s situation as “typical of the massive human rights violations taking place under [Chinese] President Xi Jinping.”
“[Tohti] was calling not for separatism but for a dialogue to reach a peaceful solution to his community’s problems,” RSF said.
In his writings, Tohti had made “valuable recommendations to the Chinese government to create genuine peace and harmony in East Turkestan,” the Munich-based exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said in a Jan. 17 statement, using the name for Xinjiang preferred by many Uyghurs to refer to their traditional homeland.
“He is not a criminal. He is a voice of reason and peace,” WUC President Dolkun Isa said.
“China has no reason to fear this moderate Uyghur voice and has no justification to imprison him for life. The international community will not stay silent until the day he’s free,” Isa said.
Ilham Tohti was awarded Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom in a ceremony held in absentia in The Hague in November 2017. He was also the recipient of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016 and the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from the PEN America Center in 2014.
Reported by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.