The former website of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti containing thousands of articles has been restored seven years after it was shut down by authorities in China ahead of his 2014 arrest and sentencing to life in prison for “separatism,” according to a group that advocates for his release.
The Uyghur Online website, formerly at uyghurbiz.net, was established by Tohti in in 2006 as an advisory platform for him and other Uyghur intellectuals to promote voices from within their community to the people of China and the wider world.
The website was used to draw attention to the discrimination facing Uyghurs in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) under Beijing’s rule—restrictions on practice of religion and use of native language, and other curbs on cultural practices—as authorities sought to assimilate the ethnic group.
China’s policies toward Uyghurs’ in the XUAR have gotten progressively more harsh in the six years since Tohti’s jailing, with a re-education program launched in 2017 putting as many as 1.8 million people through a vast network of internment camps, and many inmates now pressed into forced labor.
Uyghur Online was closely monitored by the government, which shut it down several times prior to Tohti’s arrest on Jan. 15, 2014, citing the politically sensitive nature of the content posted there.
The former professor of economics at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing was sentenced to life in prison for “separatism” by the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court in the XUAR on Sept. 23, 2014, despite having worked for more than two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
In a statement posted to Facebook on Monday, the Germany-based Ilham Tohti Institute (ITI) said that after a year and a half of work by a group of young volunteers, it had successfully completed restoration work on a total of 3,553 articles from the old website published between 2006 and 2013, using the Wayback Machine Internet Archive, as well as the archive of Uyghur Online itself.
“His website was a beacon of truth for Uyghur people under Chinese strict Internet censorship,” the institute said.
“Published were many controversial topics that were written fearlessly, predominantly by a group of intellectuals who were headed by Ilham Tohti. There were many valuable articles about the Uyghur people, including research on political, socio-economic and cultural aspects of Uyghur lives.”
ITI said it had decided to restore the website, which is now hosted on uyghurbiz.org, to share Tohti’s legacy with the Uyghur diaspora and researchers, and said it hopes the project will help its goal of securing the scholar’s freedom.
Tohti has endured mistreatment in prison and has only been granted limited visits by family members. His daughter, Jewher Ilham, has told RFA’s Uyghur Service that she hadn’t heard anything about Tohti since 2017, and is unsure of his condition or if he has been transferred to another facility.
Tohti had given a lengthy statement by phone to RFA’s Uyghur Service reporter Mihray Abdilim before he was detained by Chinese authorities from his Beijing home, expressing concern that he would be tortured and forced to make a confession, or even face the prospect of death while in custody.
Nominated for prize
The scholar has been nominated for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s 2020 Peace Prize, the winner of which will be announced Friday.
Tohti’s daughter Ilham told RFA’s Uyghur Service on Thursday that she was thrilled he might receive the award for his work on behalf of the Uyghur people in the XUAR.
“If the Nobel Committee decides to give this award to my father, I believe that this award is not only meant to give to my father, it’s actually for giving to the entire Uyghur community,” she said.
“The entire Uyghur community needs this. We need this award to regain our hope again and to help us believe things can get better.”
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) awarded Tohti the 2019 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, named after the Czech playwright and politician who opposed Soviet communism, making him the first dissident from China to receive the prize.
After Tohti was shortlisted for the seventh Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in August last year, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told a press conference that PACE should “withdraw the nomination and stop supporting separatist and terrorist forces.”
In addition to winning the Sakharov Prize, the Vaclav Havel prize, and the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, Tohti was awarded the Martin Ennals Award in 2016, the Liberal International Prize for Freedom in 2017, and Freedom House’s Freedom Award in 2019. The jailed professor was also a nominee for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Anticipation over Tohti’s chance at the Nobel Prize comes amid growing international criticism of China over the internment camps and other repressive policies in the XUAR.
On Wednesday, the U.K. and Germany led a group of 39 member states in condemning China’s treatment of Uyghurs at the U.N. General Assembly, signaling increasing opposition to Beijing’s policies from the international community.
The countries pointed to “severe restrictions” on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association and expression, as well as on Uyghur culture. They also noted widespread surveillance that “disproportionally continues to target Uyghurs and other minorities,” as more reports emerge of forced labor and forced birth control, including sterilization.
The condemnation marked a significant increase in the number of countries willing to stand up to China’s threats of cutting off trade with nations that support such statements. A similar resolution last year received only 23 backers.
This week, both New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network issued statements calling attention to serial rights abuses in China, including the mass persecution and incarceration of Muslims in the XUAR, saying member states voting for the next U.N. Human Rights Council on Oct. 13 must take into account the rights violations of candidates.
Targets of Beijing repression have won two Nobel Prizes in the past three decades.
Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama won the prize in 1989, and the 2010 Nobel went to former literature professor Liu Xiaobo, who died in custody seven years later while serving an 11-year jail term for “incitement to subvert state power” for his writings promoting democracy and constitutional government.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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