Ten Years of Injustice: UHRP Calls for Ilham Tohti’s Release and Access to Family

Ilham Tohti Event January 2023

January 15, 2024 | 7:00 a.m. EST
For Immediate Release
Contact: Omer Kanat +1 (202) 790-1795, Peter Irwin +1 (646) 906-7722

The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) is calling for the release of Ilham Tohti, ten years after his unjust detention, as well as immediate access to family members and transparency surrounding detention conditions. Governments and academic institutions should also increase pressure on the Chinese government regarding his case.

“It’s a travesty that Ilham Tohti remains in prison after a decade,” said UHRP Executive Director Omer Kanat. “Peaceful, constructive advocates for the Uyghur cause have routinely been brutally and cruelly punished by the Chinese government.”

UHRP asks universities and academic associations to issue renewed statements calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Professor Ilham Tohti. The U.S. should expand the mandate of the Envoy for Hostage Affairs or create a new position to focus on prisoners who are relatives of U.S. citizens or residents.

Ilham Tohti is a Uyghur economist, writer, and professor who co-founded Uighurbiz in 2006 (UighurOnline), a website which promoted dialogue between Uyghurs and Han, for which he encountered government pressure to shut down the platform. Ilham faced harassment and periods of house arrest in the years that followed and was prevented from leaving the country in 2010. Furthermore, he was barred from leaving China in 2013 after he was offered a position as a visiting scholar at the University of Indiana.

Ilham was taken from his home in Beijing on January 15, 2014, and subsequently charged with separatism. He was held incommunicado for months before he could meet his lawyers. On September 23, 2014, he was found guilty of “separatism” after a two day trial, which Human Rights Watch called “a travesty of justice.” Ilham is currently serving a life sentence in an Ürümchi prison, where authorities have barred access to family since 2017.

At least seven of Ilham’s students were arrested in February 2014, including Abduqeyum Ablimit, Perhat Halmurat, Ekbar Imin, Mutellip Imin, Shohret Nijat, Atikem Rozi, and Luo Yuwei. According to a leaked government list, five of the seven were convicted of “separatism” on December 7, 2014 and sentenced to between three-and-a-half and eight years in prison. It is unclear whether any of the students have been released.

In the years since his arrest, Ilham has garnered significant recognition from the international community. He was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014, the Martin Ennals Award in 2016, the Weimar Prize in 2017, the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2019, and the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2019.

On February 6, 2014, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Ilham Tohti’s detention was arbitrary, called for his release, and for compensation. On April 18, 2021, UN experts published a letter to the Chinese government expressing serious concerns about the continued arbitrary detention of Ilham Tohti and other human rights defenders. 

On June 28, 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders called on China to release Ilham Tohti and ensure that he and other human rights defenders “can continue their meaningful and necessary human rights work without fear of retribution of any kind.”

Since 2018, UHRP has documented the persecution and detention of Uyghur intellectual figures. Our latest briefing, released in December 2021, The Disappearance of Uyghur Intellectual and Cultural Elites: A New Form of Eliticide, documents the internment, imprisonment, or otherwise forcible disappearance of 312 intellectual and cultural producers.

Most recently, the Dui Hua Foundation found in September 2023 that Professor Rahile Dawut (راھىلە داۋۇت, 热依拉 · 达吾提), a highly respected Uyghur anthropologist, was given a life sentence by the Chinese authorities in 2018. This came after a multi-year effort to press the government for information about her wellbeing and status.

Read more:

Ilham Tohti: Uyghur Peacemaker and the Nobel Peace Prize 2024, UHRP Event, January 17, 2024

UHRP Appalled by News of Life Sentence for Professor Rahile Dawut, September 21, 2023

Ilham, UHRP Insights, July 29, 2023

A Conversation With Ilham Tohti: Reflections on the 9th Anniversary of His Detention, UHRP Insights, January 13, 2023

“We Uyghurs Have No Say”: Ilham Tohti and His Ideals, UHRP Event, April 14, 2022

European Parliament: Award Ilham Tohti The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for 2016, September 29, 2016

Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti named 2016 Martin Ennals Award laureate for his work defending Uyghur human rights, October 11, 2016

Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) urges President Obama to call for release of Ilham Tohti during Xi Jinping visit to Washington, DC, September 21, 2015 

On the first anniversary of his detention, the Uyghur Human Rights Project calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Ilham Tohti, January 13, 2015

Denial of Ilham Tohti’s appeal against separatism charges a travesty of justice, November 21, 2014

The Uyghur American Association requests President Obama to urge Xi Jinping for the release of Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti, November 4, 2014

Trial of Ilham Tohti on separatism charges politicized and shows Chinese state intolerance for peaceful Uyghur dissent, September 16, 2014

UN Working Group says China’s deprivation of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti’s liberty arbitrary, July 16, 2014

Condition of Ilham Tohti’s detention a human rights violation, June 27, 2014

Uyghur Human Rights Project alarmed at unconfirmed reports of “heavy” sentence handed down to Uyghur academic, Ilham Tohti, June 17, 2014

Charges Against Uyghur Academic Ilham Tohti Show “No One in China Is Safe from Government”, February 25, 2014

Uyghur Human Rights Project urges international community to maintain vigilance on the condition of Uyghur academic, Ilham Tohti, January 17, 2014