Authorities in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang region have denied the relatives of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti permission to visit him or provide him with clothing and money while he serves his life sentence for “separatism,” according to his wife.
The 45-year-old former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing was sentenced to life in prison, along with deprivation of political rights and confiscation of all his assets, following his conviction on a charge of “separatism” by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang on Sept. 23 last year.
Tohti's Beijing-based wife Guzelnur, who has been left with the care of the couple's young sons, told RFA’s Mandarin Service that the scholar’s older brother had recently brought him clothing and money at the Urumqi No. 1 Prison where he is serving time in Urumqi, but was told to return home.
"When his elder brother went to the prison [with his family], they didn’t allow them to see him,” she said.
“The prison authorities said they would inform us around the end of June or near July when we could visit my husband, but now it is not even permitted to give him clothes. They said there are special clothes in prison and the prisoners don’t wear outside clothing.”
Guzelnur said that prison authorities also refused to allow her brother-in-law to give Tohti money to use at the prison commissary.
“The prison refused the money his brother brought, saying there was still money on my husband’s card,” she said.
“Tohti’s elder brother also went to the prison in March and had planned to give him 2,000 yuan (U.S. $320) but was refused. We are not sure if denying him money is a regulation in Xinjiang or not.”
Tohti's conviction sparked a wave of condemnation in China and from the international community, with human rights activists saying he never received the benefit of a fair trial, and that he should never have been tried in the first place for exercising his constitutional right to free expression.
Tohti's Uighur online (uighurbiz.net) website included articles critical of China’s ruling Communist Party's policies targeting Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including systematic religious controls, the enforcement of Chinese-medium education in schools, and lack of economic opportunity.
These criticisms were used by prosecutors in Tohti's case as evidence that he had incited people to separatism and undermined "national unity," lawyers said at the time.
He has repeatedly denied the charge of “separatism” and says the cases against him and his students—seven of whom were handed jail terms of between three and eight years in November—are politically motivated.
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year anti-terrorism campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.
Exile Uyghur groups have repeatedly said the root causes of recent violence in Xinjiang lie with China's treatment of peaceful Uyghur dissidents.
Reported by Qiao Long RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.