On the first anniversary of his detention, the Uyghur Human Rights Project calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Ilham Tohti

International support imperative in securing the release of Ilham Tohti

For immediate release
January 13, 2015 11:00am EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 478 1920

One year after his detention on January 15, 2014, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) calls on Chinese state authorities to immediately and unconditionally release imprisoned Uyghur academic, Ilham Tohti.

The detention, trial and sentencing of Professor Tohti is a travesty of justice and an explicit denial of his fundamental human right to free speech.

The life sentence handed down to Ilham Tohti in September 2014 and the denial of his appeal in November 2014 indicates the lengths to which the Chinese government will go to silence Uyghur opposition to discriminatory and assimilationist policies in East Turkestan.

UHRP believes Ilham Tohti’s case demonstrates Chinese state measures that aim to protect “stability” are disingenuous and invariably reinforce the atmosphere of tension and fear in East Turkestan.

UHRP also believes that state repression of free speech in the region not only targets outspoken Uyghurs such as Ilham Tohti, but also millions of ordinary Uyghurs. The repression of Uyghur voices during a time of government-led economic transformation in East Turkestan effectively means Uyghurs in China are unable to influence change and remain vulnerable to state policies that disregard their economic, social and cultural interests.

“The day of Ilham Tohti’s detention was the day the Chinese government made a political decision to end his reasonable questioning of government policies in East Turkestan. The ensuing harsh treatment of a respected Uyghur academic sent a chilling message to all Uyghurs of China’s zero tolerance to legitimate dissent,” said UHRP Director, Alim Seytoff in a statement from Washington, DC.

“Ilham Tohti’s case and on-going repression of Uyghur freedom of speech should mobilize all responsible members of the international community to call on China to meet international human rights obligations and release Professor Tohti. China’s increasing contempt for universal human rights standards are laid bare through the injustices Ilham Tohti and his family have been made to suffer,” Mr. Seytoff added.

UHRP also calls on China to release seven of Ilham Tohti’s students who were given prison sentences of up to eight years in December 2014. Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Nijat, Mutellip Imin, Abduqeyyum Ablimit, Atikem Rozi, Akbar Imin and Luo Yuwei (an ethnic Yi) worked as volunteers on Professor Tohti’s website, Uighurbiz. The Uighurbiz website, shutdown since Ilham Tohti’s detention, offered information on Uyghur social issues in Mandarin Chinese and had been hosted overseas after unrest in Urumchi in 2009.

Mr. Tohti, who worked as a professor at Beijing’s Minzu University (formerly Central Nationalities University), often questioned the efficacy of Chinese government policies targeting Uyghurs citing worsening economic, social and cultural conditions. He founded the Uighurbiz website in order to “promote mutual understanding as well as dialogue among ethnic communities,” as he explained in an autobiographical essay in 2011.

After his January 15, 2014 detention in Beijing, Chinese state media and Chinese officials heavily prejudiced Ilham Tohti’s case.

Only three days after his detention, an op-ed in the Chinese state run Global Times accused Tohti of links to the “West,” delivering “aggressive lectures and being the “brains” behind alleged Uyghur terrorists.

A March 6, 2014 article by AFP cited former Xinjiang chairman, Nur Bekri as stating the evidence against Ilham Tohti was “irrefutable.”

The conditions of Ilham Tohti’s pre-trial detention did not meet international standards, as reports emerged that he had been denied food and medical assistance. These allegations place China in violation of articles 20 and 22 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Furthermore, procedural issues ahead of his trial denied Ilham Tohti a fair hearing. His lawyers’ requests to see prosecution evidence ahead of the trial were rejected. In a briefing dated November 17, 2014, the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) outlined further procedural violations, as described by Ilham Tohti’s lawyers.

Professor Tohti was found guilty on charges of separatism and sentenced to life imprisonment on September 23, 2014 after a two-day trial that began on September 17.

A November 21, 2014 appeal hearing was held behind closed doors at the Urumchi Number 1 Detention Center in violation of normal procedure, according to Professor Tohti’s lawyers. The appeal was turned down.

Since his conviction, Chinese authorities have seized his family’s assets and maintained heavy handed surveillance of the family home in Beijing.

At the sixty-ninth session of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention held between April 22 and May 1, 2014, a panel of five human rights experts rendered the opinion that Ilham Tohti’s deprivation of liberty since January 15, 2014 is arbitrary.

The Working Group cited China’s violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Mr. Tohti’s case—in particular, articles 9, 10, 11, 18, 19, 20 and 21.

The universal right to freedom of speech is guaranteed under the articles of the UDHR.

Following his sentencing in September, President Obama personally urged China to release Professor Tohti; and the European Union, US State Department, and White House all released statements condemning the sentencing.

On the one-year anniversary of the detention, UHRP calls for continued pressure from these concerned parties and for other states and multi-lateral entities to raise Ilham Tohti’s case with Chinese officials.