Ilham Tohti by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Ilham Tohti


The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwest China is predominantly Muslim with a significant Uighur population. It has been annexed to China on and off for the last three centuries and was named Xinjiang (‘new frontier’) in the 19th century. Today, China is keen to exploit the region’s oil and gas reserves, minerals and fertile agriculture. Many Han Chinese have been resettled there as a result.

Repressive government policies have led to severe economic deprivation in the Uighur community and contributed to the escalation of ethnic tensions in recent years. There is a large military presence in the region, and peaceful political and cultural expression is suppressed. The government justifies this ethnic discrimination as necessary to counter ‘separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism’. In 2013, over one hundred people – Uighurs, Han and other ethnicities – were killed in the region. 

I’ve written in these pages about Uighur writer Nurmuhemmet Yasin (LR, September 2010), who was sentenced in 2005 to ten years in prison for his allegorical short story ‘Wild Pigeon’. The latest victim to fall foul of the government’s repressive stance against the Uighur people is writer and academic Ilham Tohti. Born in Atush, a minor city in Xinjiang, in October 1969, Tohti became an economics professor at Minzu University in Beijing and an outspoken critic of China’s ethnic policies in XUAR. Tohti is a member of Uighur PEN and in 2006 he founded UighurOnline, a website aimed at promoting understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese.

On 15 January 2014 Tohti was arrested at his home in Beijing and swiftly transferred to Urümqi, the capital of XUAR. On 25 January, the Urümqi Public Security Bureau issued an online statement accusing Tohti of having ‘engaged in separatist activities’ and having ‘fanned ethnic hatred’. They alleged that Tohti had recruited followers through UighurOnline and that he had ‘exploited his status as a teacher to recruit, entice and coerce people to form gangs, and to collude with “East Turkestan” leaders in planning, organising and assigning people to go abroad to join in separatist activities’.

Tohti first came to PEN’s attention in 2009 when he spent six weeks in detention after speaking out about the ethnic unrest that broke out in Urümqi on 5 July 2009. Since then Tohti has suffered regular harassment by the Chinese authorities. In February 2013, he was prevented from travelling to the United States to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University. He was also prevented from leaving his home on various other occasions in 2013 and in July, around the time of the US–China human rights dialogue, visitors to his home were required to register with the police. The same month, Tohti published an open letter to the government asking for an investigation into 34 cases of disappearance he had documented. Most recently, Tohti had expressed fears on his website about increased pressure on Uighurs. This was in response to a fatal car crash and explosion in Tiananmen Square on 28 October 2013 – resulting in the deaths of 5 people and leaving 38 others injured – which was later attributed to members of a Uighur separatist movement.

Other Chinese Uighurs involved with Tohti’s website have been persecuted. On 24 July 2010 Hailaite Niyazi, also known as Gheyret Niyaz, the former editor of UighurOnline, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for ‘endangering national security’. In July last year, Mutellip Imin, an ethnic Uighur student and volunteer with UighurOnline, was detained by police at Beijing International Airport as he attempted to return to Turkey, where he is studying at university. Imin was reportedly held without charge for 79 days in Xinjiang. When he was released in October, the police retained his passport, preventing him from returning to Turkey to continue his studies. Similarly, last September, Perhat Halmurat, the editor of UighurOnline, was reportedly taken into custody at Beijing International Airport on charges of ‘attempting to escape the country’ as he was about to board a flight to Turkey, where he had received a scholarship to study anthropology at Istanbul University. He was released 16 hours later following pressure from a number of prominent activists. Five of Tohti’s students were also arrested in January this year.

On 20 February 2014, Tohti was charged with ‘splittism’. While outspoken and critical of many state policies, there is no evidence that Tohti has engaged in any form of speech or behaviour that could be construed as inciting violence or unlawful action. He has always clearly stated in his writings and interviews that he opposed Uighur independence or separatism. Tohti is currently held incommunicado, which increases his risk of being tortured or otherwise ill-treated. At the time of writing, Tohti’s lawyer, Li Fangping, has reportedly not been allowed to defend him.

Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern at the crackdown on Chinese Uighurs critical of the government; calling for the immediate and unconditional release of writer and academic Ilham Tohti and seeking assurances of his well-being; reminding the Chinese authorities that Article 35 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for freedom of speech and that, as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for freedom of legitimate expression, the right not to be arbitrarily detained and the right to a fair trial, they are obliged to ‘refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose’. Address your appeals to:

His Excellency Mr Liu Xiaoming
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
31 Portland Place
London W1B 1QD
Fax: 020 7636 2981

His Excellency President Xi Jinping Guojia Zhuxi
Fax: +86 10 6238 1025

Director of Department of Justice, Abuliz Usour Tingzhang
Fax: +86 99 1231 1590

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