Jewher Ilham, the daughter of jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, is a graduate from Indiana University who has spoken out in support of his peaceful promotion of equal rights and greater autonomy for the Turkic speaking Uyghur ethnic group in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Tohti, currently serving a life jail term for “separatism,” won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award 2016 for human rights, the Liberal International Prize for Freedom in 2017, and Freedom House’s Freedom Award in 2019. The jailed professor is also a nominee for the 2019 Sakharov Prize and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Ilham spoke to RFA about her father’s case and Beijing’s policies in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held more than 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017. Ilham referred to the facilities as ‘concentration camps’—a term also used by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall G. Schriver and the Uyghur exile community.
RFA: How do you envision a path to your father’s release from prison?
Ilham: Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s happening soon, based on the Chinese government’s recent actions, such as the concentration camps and other Uyghur scholars like [jailed former head of Xinjiang University] Tashpolat Teyip. I haven’t seen good signs, especially since I haven’t heard anything about my father since 2017—his condition, or if he has been transferred to another prison. We don’t know anything about it. But I’m always keeping hope and it’s very important to be positive. If you lose hope, then you lose everything.
RFA: After speaking with President Trump and other officials about your father and the situation in the XUAR, do you feel confident that the U.S. government will take meaningful action on the issues?
Ilham: Actually, I have to say that the U.S. is one of the countries that has taken the most action throughout the world. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Muslim countries taking any action, so I really appreciate the U.S. for being willing to do so. We can’t really say that any action is meaningful or productive—all of this depends on the Chinese government and how they react. Any action is meaningful, any action is considered useful and productive, to me at least.
‘No one wants to be treated like that’
RFA: What would greater autonomy for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Look like according to what your father has argued for, and how would that solve tensions between Beijing and the Uyghur people?
Ilham: I think that’s a question that my father should be answering. I’m not him, so I can’t speak for him. I would say that his suggestions and what he was trying to do was create better understanding between [people]. Someone once told me, when you don’t understand each other, you will always think of the other person as evil. My father wanted to prevent this from happening.
Now what the Chinese government is doing to the Uyghur people is actually making people look more evil to each other. And no one wants to be treated like that—[put] in a concentration camp. I’m pretty sure no one in the Chinese government would want their family members to be thrown into a camp, even in an “education camp,” as they call it. They wouldn’t want anyone to be in a labor camp. They wouldn’t want any of their family members to not be able to go home, not be able to contact their relatives, and not even know if their relatives are alive or not. No one would want that, and if you don’t want something to happen to you and your family, why would you do it to others?
For the past many years there have been enough TV shows, movies, even classes at school to educate Uyghurs about Han Chinese culture, but what about the opposite side? There hasn’t been anything done for the Uyghurs. And now they are forcing the Uyghurs to adopt the Chinese culture, and this is not fair.
RFA: The plight of the Uyghurs has gotten unprecedented attention in the past two years, with exposures of the internment camp system. Has that meant anything for your father’s case?
Ilham: This exactly proves what my father was saying that the Chinese government was doing wrong. Now they are doing the exact opposite of what my father suggested and look at what is happening. China has lost reputation based on their treatment of human rights and I don’t see any benefits or good outcomes from its actions.