Rights activists and Uyghur advocacy groups on Tuesday demanded the release from prison of Uyghur academic and blogger Ilham Tohti in statements marking the fifth anniversary of his arrest on charges of promoting separatism and subsequent sentencing to 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 Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), 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.
On Tuesday, the Germany-based Ilham Tohti Initiative urged 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 is 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 group’s president Enver Can said in a statement.
Can said that Tohti’s family has not been able to visit him at the XUAR capital Urumqi’s No. 1 Prison for the past two years, and cited a report by rights group ChinaChange that claimed he had been held in solitary confinement and denied the right to communicate with friends and loved ones.
The Ilham Tohti Initiative urged China’s government to “unconditionally free Ilham Tohti, [as well as] his students and all innocent Uyghur intellectuals and writers” in prison or “political re-education camps,” where authorities have detained Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas throughout the XUAR since April 2017.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia told RFA’s Uyghur Service Tuesday that Tohti’s situation—imprisoned and prevented from seeing his friends and family—“reflects the actual situation of the Uyghur people living as second class citizens under Communist Party rule in China.”
Hu said that in the time since Tohti’s family was last allowed to visit him, the health of the professor is unknown, and expressed concern that authorities “will allow him to die slowly, like they did to Liu Xiaobo,” the late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner who succumbed to liver cancer in July 2017.
In 2011, high-ranking Chinese officials had sought out Tohti’s advice on Beijing’s policies in the XUAR, but rejected a paper he wrote detailing the difficulties faced by Uyghurs in the region and how they could be addressed.
In 2013, fearing he would be detained and accused of various charges without the right to reply, Tohti gave a lengthy statement by phone to RFA’s Uyghur Service and requested it be published if he were taken into custody.
Authorities in the XUAR went on to institute a crackdown on intellectuals and others voices of dissent in 2013, following the appointment of Chinese President Xi Jinping,
Repressive tactics in the XUAR grew to include detentions in the region’s vast network of re-education camps, which Beijing initially denied the existence of, but which XUAR chairman Shohrat Zakir told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October last year were an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, recently called the situation in the XUAR “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
In an open letter on Tuesday, 132 scholars and 18 civil society groups called on China’s government to immediately release Tohti and other notable academics held in re-education camps, saying his case represents “a warning shot directed at Uyghur intellectuals and activists in China more broadly.”
“The Chinese government has evidently failed to yield to his advice and now operates one of the most obtrusive surveillance states in the world while arbitrarily locking up Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in political indoctrination facilities,” the letter said.
In an opinion piece published in the Hong Kong Free Press on Tuesday, Peter Irwin, program manager of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, also called on China to free Tohti and other intellectuals, but stressed that doing so will not be enough to reverse the effects of Beijing’s repressive policies in the region.
“It will take time and tremendous effort from a coalition of like-minded governments to bring about real change on the ground for those affected by what some have already likened to crimes against humanity,” Irwin wrote.
“Five years into this experiment leaves us with dwindling hope, but it is today that Professor Tohti’s words resonate. If Xi truly wants harmony and stability as is often claimed, they would do well to heed the advice of the scholar they chose to silence, when his voice was most necessary.”
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 Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.