Three years on from Ilham Tohti’s life imprisonment – UNPO voices concern regarding continued silence on his condition.
23 September 2017 marked three years since the verdict of life imprisonment was passed on Uyghur human rights activist Prof Ilham Tohti. Despite campaigning for the rights of Uyghurs to be respected in a peaceful manner, he was charged in a trial that lasted two days where he did not have the opportunity to adequately use his defense team. In the three years that have passed, Ilham Tohti has faced cruel and inhuman conditions in prison. Since last year there has been a worrying lack of information regarding Prof Tohti’s wellbeing, with family members having restricted visitation rights. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) strongly condemn this and calls for his immediate release.
It has been three years since the Uyghur human rights activist and academic, Ilham Tohti, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Ürümqi People's Intermediate Court. Despite the fact that he never called for the separation of the Uyghur Autonomous Region, or engaged in anti-Chinese sentiment, Ilham Tohti was charged under the crime of preaching “separatism” on 23 September 2014.
Even before his sentence, the Chinese authorities had been keeping a close eye on the activities of Prof Tohti. From 1994, authorities were trying to restrict his teaching activities resulting in him being barred from publishing articles in mainstream outlets from 1999 and from the same year, being barred to teach at the Minzu University for a period of four years.
Despite numerous attempts of the Chinese State authorities to portray Prof Tohti as an anti-Han hate preacher and separatist, he has always been a voice for moderation, peace and inter-ethnic dialogue. While facing political persecution in the years leading up to his unjust sentencing, he always called for rationality and reconciliation hopeful in the ideal that one day the growing inter-ethnic tensions in China would be resolved through peace and dialogue.
Inspired by this hope and to raise awareness of the situation of the Uyghurs to the wider Chinese population, Prof Tohti set up the Mandarin language Uyghurbiz.net in 2006, as an avenue through which to open dialogue and reduce growing ethnic tensions between the Han and Uyghur populations in the Autonomous Region. However, this was systematically targeted by authorities as a source of dissidence and finally shut down in early 2014.
In all approaches of his advocacy, Ilham Tohti has been vehemently against violence, terror and separatism. On the contrary, his hope has always been that peacefully raising awareness of the government’s policies that undermine Uyghur culture and cross ethnic dialogue about such issues can be viable steps towards a harmonious China, where its vast amount of ethnic groups can live in peace together.
In recognition of his work advocating on behalf of the Uyghur people, Ilham Tohti was awarded the Martin Ennals Human Rights Award on 10 October 2016, and was also nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in September 2016.
Ilham Tohti has been serving his sentence in the First Prison of Uyghur Autonomous Region in Ürümqi since the end of 2014, after his appeal was dismissed without a court hearing of adequate due process. The situation has only deteriorated for his basic rights. His daughter, Jewher Ilham, has expressed concern over the fact that he is only allowed to meet his family once every three months for a period of twenty minutes, under strict supervision and where discussion over his treatment in prison and any political related topics is strictly forbidden. Furthermore, his wife has informed media sources of his worrying weight loss and enforced solitary confinement. The most worrying issue is of the authorities suppressing Ilham Tohti’s request for retrial. In late 2015 and early 2016, he urged his family to appeal for retrial, something that is guaranteed under Chinese law if you feel you have been falsely imprisoned. However, after an attempt made in the summer of 2016, authorities threatened his family to strip away their already meagre visitation rights if they did not stop looking into these issues.
All of these accounts of his treatment in prison since his imprisonment indicate that Ilham Tohti is undergoing an alarming form of psychological torture at the hand of prison authorities. This is something that UNPO unequivocally condemns to its fullest and calls on the relevant authorities to release him immediately. The third anniversary of his imprisonment is an occasion to advocate for his release and campaign the UNHRC, European Parliament and various other governmental organization to put pressure on the Chinese government to stop the arbitrary imprisonment and abuse of Human Rights Activists.