Jailed Uyghur scholar Tohti’s 52nd birthday brings fresh calls for his release

Ilham Tohti is serving a life sentence for ‘separatism’ for his work to end discrimination against Uyghurs.
By Alim Seytoff
Jailed Uyghur scholar Tohti’s 52nd birthday brings fresh calls for  his release Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar from China's Turkic Uighur ethnic minority, speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing, in Feb. 4, 2013 file photo.

Supporters of jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti marked his 52nd birthday Monday with calls for his release from a life sentence for “separatism” he received for his advocacy work in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region.

An economist at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, Tohti has won numerous international human rights awards for his non-violent campaign for equal rights for the 12 million Uyghurs. He was jailed seven years ago last month, and his family says it no longer know his whereabouts.

“His imprisonment is a clear indication of the true genocidal intent of the Chinese regime as they have first attacked Uyghur intellectuals and societal leaders,” said the Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU), a U.S.-based advocacy group.

"As is the case for millions of Uyghurs who are detained, tortured, and killed without cause, we must make clear that there can be no cooperation while the Chinese authorities continue to engage in criminal behavior and to carry out active genocide," said CFU Executive Director Rushan Abbas.

"While they continue to perpetuate the sham that China has the rule of law, it is clear that this is not the case,” she said in a statement.

The repression of the Uyghurs has gotten progressively worse since Tohti’s conviction on separatism following a two-day trial at the Urumqi Intermediate Court on Sept. 23, 2014.

China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a network of detention camps since 2017.

Beijing says the camps are vocational training centers set up to fight extremism among Uyghurs and has denied documented allegations that it has mistreated Muslims living in Xinjiang, but camp survivors and former guards have described widespread abuses in interviews with RFA and others.

Incommunicado for five years

Other abuses against members of the 12-million-strong Uyghur population include torture, sexual assaults, forced abortions and the sterilization of detained Uyghur women, and efforts to reduce population growth in the region thorough birth control and population transfer policies.

As international awareness of the situation in Xinjiang has grown, the United States and the legislatures in several European countries have deemed the treatment of Uyghurs and others as constituting genocide and crimes against humanity. Many have called for a boycott next February’s Beijing Olympics.

“As Beijing is slated to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in spite of the international outcry, it is preposterous that China would be treated as an equal in the international community while continuing to jail Professor Tohti and deny him basic rights,” the CFU said.

The Germany-based Ilham Tohti Initiative commemorated their namesake’s birthday with a panel discussion and social media events designed to “salute the Uyghur scholars' engagement for the right of his people,” the group said.

“The international community has no official information about his whereabouts and health conditions, and his wife has not been able to see him at least for the last five consecutive years,” the group said in a statement.

“The combination of reduced visits, denial of communication, gag orders, and family reprisals, have 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,” it said.

Tohti ran the Uyghur Online website, formerly at uyghurbiz.net, set up in 2006, which drew attention to the discrimination facing Uyghurs under Beijing’s rule over Xinjiang, as authorities tried to assimilate the ethnic group by restricting religious practices and use of the Uyghur language.

The Chinese government shut down the website several times prior to Tohti’s formal arrest in January 2014, citing the politically sensitive nature of its content.

Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, told RFA last month, on the seventh anniversary of his life sentence, that her family doesn’t know whether authorities have kept her father in the same prison during the past seven years or moved him.

“Would he have chosen the same path of human rights advocacy if he knew what he was going to face? Yes, I know he would do the same over again and again! He would never stop peacefully fighting for our people, the Uyghurs!” she said in a tweet for her father’s birthday.

Tohti has received more than 10 international human rights awards since his sentencing, including the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016 and the Sakharov Award for “Freedom of Thought” in 2019. He also was nominated for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s Peace Prize in 2020.

Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Paul Eckert.


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