Jewher Ilham, the daughter of jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, is a student at Indiana University who has spoken out in support of his peaceful promotion of equal rights and greater autonomy for the Turkic speaking Uyghur ethnic group in China. Tohti, currently serving a life jail term for "separatism," won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award 2016 for human rights. Ilham spoke to Mamatjan Juma of RFA’s Uyghur Service in New York on March 11, at a memorial service for family friend Eliot Sperling, a Tibet expert at Indiana University who died on Jan. 29.
RFA: How do you cope with being cut off from your father and your family?
Ilham: I don't want to admit that I cry but, but, of course, I do. Whenever my two little brothers touch the screen and kiss the screen because they are thinking they are kissing me. My stepmother always tells me that they hold my pictures and ask her when will I come back and I can't even answer the question – that makes me feel frustrated.
RFA: Two important people in your life, your father and Mr. Sperling, are now out of your life. How do you handle being separated from those important people?
Ilham: I knew that I would have to only depend on myself one day. I had this preparation. I just didn't expect it would be so soon. I didn’t expect my dad to be charged with a life sentence. I didn’t expect that all of a sudden Elliot would pass away. But time goes by and life is still there, and you can't do anything about it except just push yourself and make efforts to do whatever you have to do.
RFA: What’s your next move?
Ilham: We’re still working on some small things like you know a book about my father probably, but it is still in the planning stage, and then some translating of my father's work into different languages. Then work with either the U.S. or with other countries to bring more people’s attention to tension and then seek more help. We don't have a specific plan because there is no actual plan for rescuing my father. We just we do whatever it takes that can be helpful.
RFA: Tell us about your studies at Indiana University.
Ilham: One of my majors is political science, and that's not something that I wanted to do. It’s something that I’m doing because of my father. I hope I can help solve my family’s problems as soon as possible, so I can then do something that I really want to do in the future.
RFA: What do you say to your father in jail, assuming he will somehow be able to hear this?
Ilham: Hang in there. You'll be out. You know it, right?
RFA: And what would you say to the Chinese government?
Ilham: Too many things that they’re not going to want to hear. To the Chinese government: I don't think you really think my dad did something wrong. I know you might need somebody to stay in there and it happened that you chose my dad. I hope you can realize that it was a big mistake to lock him up and please release him. You will not regret it.