Date: 15th January 2021, 12:00 (CET)
Contact:   Enver Can, enver.can@; +491738912048

Today, the Uyghur people around the world are commemorating the seventh anniversary of Prof. Ilham Tohti’s imprisonment with growing concern and sorrow about his mental and physical health, as he is kept incommunicado. The Uyghur scholar was arrested at Beijing airport on 15th of January 2014 while leaving for the United States of America as part of a University Exchange Programme.  

Prof. Tohti began his studies in 1985 at the Central Minzu University in Beijing. He eventually became a faculty member at the same university and a recognized expert on economic and social issues pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia. As a scholar, he has been forthright about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, and his work led to official surveillance and harassment that began as early as 1994. From time to time, he was barred from teaching, and after 1999 he was unable to appear in normal venues. 

In order to make the economic, social and developmental issues confronting the Uyghurs known to China’s wider population, Ilham Tohti established the Chinese-language website in 2006 to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Chinese on the Uyghur issue. Over the course of its existence, it was shut down periodically and people writing for it were harassedIlham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism and sought reconciliation by bringing to light Uyghur grievances, information the Chinese state has sought to keep behind a veil of silence. As a result of his efforts, he was sentenced to life in prison in September 2014 following a two-day show trial. Despite political persecution in the years leading up to his trial, he remained a voice of moderation and reconciliation. 

Prof. Tohti is known to be kept in the No. 1 prison of Ürümqi since December 2014. In spite of the Chinese law stipulates, he is not enjoying his right of visitations and is de facto kept incommunicado. Thus, his family has not been able to visit him for the last five years. This is a calculated and cruel deprivation. Observers say that the combination of lack of visits, denial of communication, gag orders, and family reprisals, have been carefully engineered to punish the Uyghur scholar with degrading treatment and psychological torture, while at the same time keeping the attention on his plight from the outside world to a zero.

But the CCP’s policy of silencing Prof. Tohti behind the bars and to cut him off from the outside world has backfired. Thus, Ilham Tohti is the recipient of the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center in 2014, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016, the Human Rights Award of the City of Weimar in 2017, the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award and the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2019 just to mention a few. He was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2018 and was listed as one of the five finalists in 2020.

Mr. Teng Biao, a Han Chinese human rights activist and lawyer, says, “Ilham Tohti represents the courage of telling the truth and pursuing mutual understanding and reconciliation between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese, but what the Chinese authorities respond to his important effort is concentration camps. The whole world should take concrete actions against the ongoing genocide”.

We call on the Chinese government to unconditionally release Prof. Ilham Tohti and all Uyghur intellectuals kept both in prisons and internment camps, and end its policy of cultural genocide against the Uyghur people. We urge the International Community, including the UN human rights institutions, the governments, the European Union and civil societies to press for his freedom more actively with deeds.