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

For immediate Release
June 17, 2014, 2:15 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur Human Rights Project +1 (202) 478 1920

The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) expresses alarm at unconfirmed reports detailing the clandestine trial and sentencing of Uyghur economist, Ilham Tohti. UHRP seeks verification from the Chinese authorities regarding Mr. Tohti’s legal status and urges the international community to pressure China to release information on the case. UHRP also seeks further clarification from the Chinese authorities as to Mr. Tohti’s whereabouts and health.

“If the news concerning Mr. Tohti’s secret trial and harsh sentencing can be verified it marks a new low for the Chinese government. Mr. Tohti was a peaceful advocate for the Uyghur people. He spoke out against injustice and created a platform to find rational solutions to endemic discrimination and marginalization. These reports indicate Chinese officials are not interested in such individuals and that the Uyghurs must simply accept their deplorable condition in modern China,” said UHRP director, Alim Seytoff.

“China’s treatment of Mr. Tohti illustrates that its legal system is merely a performance. It gives a veneer of legality to a deeply flawed process, especially when the Chinese authorities decide to punish their critics. In the context of a sustained crackdown in East Turkestan, the consequences of this unconfirmed report is chilling. Any Uyghur picked up on so-called ‘separatism’ charges cannot expect a free and fair hearing. The courts merely serve the political interests of the Chinese Communist party.”

According to a June 16, 2014 article in the Guardian, Li Fangping, the family appointed lawyer in Mr. Tohti’s case, told reporters his client had received a heavy sentence after a secret hearing. Mr. Li cited two unnamed sources as the origin of the information. In a Weibo post, Mr. Li stated he could not confirm the information.

In a report on Internet restrictions in East Turkestan released yesterday, Trapped in a Virtual Cage: Chinese State Repression of Uyghurs Online, UHRP detailed Mr. Tohti’s case, as well as a pattern of harassment he has faced for expressing his disapproval with government policies targeting Uyghurs. The report concludes that the ongoing harassment of Mr. Tohti and Uyghurs associated with his website, Uighurbiz demonstrates the narrow space for public debate afforded Uyghurs in China.

Since his January 15, 2014 detention in Beijing, where he taught at the Minzu University of China, Chinese police have held Ilham Tohti incommunicado. 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. The op-ed was followed by a statement from the Urumchi Public Security Bureau on its Weibo account alleging Tohti “made use of his capacity as a teacher to recruit, lure and threaten some people to form a ring and join hands with key people from the East Turkestan Independence Movement to plan and organise people to go abroad to take part in separatist activities [and]…was involved in splitting the country.” There is no public record Mr. Tohti has ever advocated independence for the Uyghur people.

Ilham Tohti was formally charged with the crime of “separatism” according to February 2014 reports in the overseas media. Reuters described in a February 27, 2014 article how Tohti’s lawyer had been denied access to his client since the January 15 detention.

UHRP calls on the Chinese government to confirm or deny reports regarding the trial and sentencing of Ilham Tohti. UHRP adds if no such trial has occurred then Chinese authorities must guarantee a transparent judicial process for Mr Tohti that conforms to international standards of justice. Free and fair legal procedures should also be extended to all Uyghurs detained in the wake of China’s recently announced one-year crackdown in the region.