Ilham Tohti is a Uyghur economist, writer, and professor who is a co-founder of the website Uyghur Online, also known as Uyghurbiz, which aimed to promote understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. After being prevented from leaving the country in 2013, his formal detention came in February 2014, and Tohti was charged with separatism and held incommunicado under inhumane treatment for months before he could meet his lawyer. On September 23, 2014, he was found guilty of “separatism,” and is currently serving a life sentence. He has been incarcerated incommunicado since 2017, with no access to his family or his lawyers.
May 18, 2015: PEN America condemns the denial of family visits or support in prison for Ilham Tohti and deplores his harsh treatment by prison authorities. We demand that Tohti be allowed to see and receive support from his family members and furthermore call for his immediate release.
September 29, 2014: More than two hundred supporters joined PEN America at a public candlelight vigil for Ilham Tohti in protest of his wrongful conviction with life in prison on unfounded charges of separatism. We continue our call for this verdict to be overturned during the appeals process.
September 23, 2014: As cited by New York Times, PEN America denounces the verdict of life imprisonment for Ilham Tohti, whose words were enough to put him behind bars.
September 16, 2014: PEN America continues its call to put an end to unjust detention of Tohti as his trial begin behind closed doors.
June 26, 2014: Following the reports of prisoner abuse after a long overdue meeting between Tohti and his lawyer, Li Fangping, PEN America calls on President Xi Jinping to stop exploiting China’s security laws and its opaque pretrial detention system to silence and break those writers whose views they disfavor.
May 5, 2014: In her acceptance speech, Tohti’s 20-year-old daughter Jewher Ilham, who is in self-imposed exile in the United States since being forcefully separated from her father at Beijing International Airport in 2013, said:
“I am heartbroken to see my father treated this way, but I am also very proud of him. My father wanted Uyghurs and Han Chinese to work together for peace and equality, and never advocated violence or separatism. While I know it is unlikely, I am hopeful that my country—his country—will recognize the value of my father’s work and spare him from years in prison.”
You can read Jewher Ilham’s acceptance remarks here.
March 31, 2014: PEN America announces that it will confer the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award upon imprisoned Uyghur economist and writer Ilham Tohti with hope that this honor helps awaken Chinese authorities to the injustice being perpetrated and galvanizes the worldwide campaign to demand Tohti’s freedom. His daughter Jewher Ilham, a student at Indiana University, will accept the award on her father’s behalf at the PEN 2014 Literary Gala on May 5.
February 27, 2014: PEN raises concern over formal charges of separatism against Tohti as Tohti is being held for peacefully exercising his right to free expression, and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.
January 31, 2014: Following incommunicado detention of Ilham Tohti since his arrest at his home in Beijing on January 15, PEN International has raises serious concern for the well-being of Uyghur writer and PEN member and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.
April 20, 2010: Following the Chinese officials preventing Ilham Tohti from leaving the country to attend an international conference in Turkey, PEN America expresses deep concern due to the Chinese government’s actions, which have the appearance of attempting to suppress critical speech not only at home but abroad as well and urges the Chinese government to lift all restrictions on Tohti.
October 9, 2009: International PEN welcomes the release of Uighur writer, academic and Uighur PEN Center member Ilham Tohti after he spent over six weeks in detention and expresses serious concern about the continuing restrictions he faces and remains alarmed about the dire state of freedom of expression in China.
July 14, 2009: Following the arrest of Ilham Tohti in Beijing over an online article for his perceived support of Han Chinese following the turmoil in Urumqi, PEN America calls for his immediate and unconditional release.
Ilham Tohti is one of the best-known scholars on Uyghur issues who co-founded the website Uyghur Online, which was designed to promote understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. It is now blocked inside China. Since the website’s founding in 2006, Tohti has been a target of frequent harassment by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on Uyghur rights. He was initially detained in July 2009 over an online article he penned questioning the events surrounding the ethnic unrest in Urumqi, and held incommunicado. He was released in August 2009. In continuation of surveillance and harassment, he was prevented from leaving the country in April 2010 in order to attend an international conference on Turkic culture in Turkey. Tohti was stopped at Beijing airport in February 2013 when he attempted to leave the country to take a post as a visiting scholar at the Indiana University. His daughter, who was initially detained with him, was put on a plane to the US alone. Tohti, a member of the Uyghur PEN Center, was born in Artush, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and has two young sons and an adult daughter, Jewher Ilham, who currently lives in exile in the United States.
Ilham Tohti was the winner of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. The imprisonment of Ilham Tohti reflects the Chinese government’s refusal to distinguish between peaceful advocacy and violent unrest. By targeting Tohti based on his ideas, writings, and teachings, Beijing sends the message that advocacy for Uyghur rights is prohibited in any form.
December 2019: Ilham Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, accepts the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which commended Tohti for promoting “dialogue and mutual understanding” between Uyghurs and other Chinese people. She sat next to a symbolically empty chair, and commented upon receiving the award for her father: “I am grateful for the opportunity to tell his story, because he cannot tell it himself.” Persecution against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China has worsened, and a recent congressional report classed China’s actions as “crimes against humanity.” Amid the backdrop of the devolving situation, Tohti has been held incommunicado for the past two years and Ms. Ilham has not seen her father since 2013. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry hopes, on behalf of the Ministry, “that relevant parties can respect China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty, and not help publicize the unworthy cause of a terrorist.” The same spokesperson denied knowledge of the prize.
September 2019: Tohti is awarded the 2019 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Pace President Liliane Maury Pasquier said that action by Tohti “carries a message of hope for all those who aspire to build a better world, one where the dignity, rights and basic liberties of everyone are respected and guaranteed.”
May 2019: Tohti is awarded the Freedom Award in absentia by the democracy watchdog organization Freedom House. Tohti’s daughter Jewher Tohti accepts the award on her father’s behalf with remarks: “I wish that this recognition were unnecessary because that would mean that the Uyghur people were free.”
January 2019: A bipartisan group of 13 US lawmakers, led by Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Christopher Smith, nominates Tohti for the Nobel Peace Prize to draw attention to the mass internment of Uyghurs in China.
November 2017: Tohti is awarded Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom, which is given once each year to a person whom it says has worked to improve human rights and political freedoms.
October 2016: Tohti is awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. The award is given to “Human Rights Defenders who have shown deep commitment and face great personal risk.”
September 2014: Tohti’s trial is held from September 17-18, with the prosecution presenting evidence that includes testimony made under duress from Tohti’s students. Tohti is only allowed to speak on his own behalf on day two of the trial. According to Attorney Liu Xiaoyuan, “whenever Ilham entered the court, he was able to smile and greet the personnel in the court in Uyghur. In the inquiry and argument stage, Ilham also wore a smile. Sometimes when he spoke there was a torrent of words, his voice ringing loud and clear; with his hands he gesticulated too. The presiding judge reminded him: this is a court of law, not your classroom. He remained indignant at the false accusations.” Tohti is convicted on charges of “separatism” and sentenced to life in prison on September 23, 2014.
June 2014: Tohti is finally granted permission to see his lawyer, Li Fangping, on June 26, 2014. Li reports that Tohti was shackled for 20 days at the start of his detention and was denied halal food for 10 days from March 1 to March 10, in violation of international law barring acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
February 2014: Tohti is formally arrested and charged with “separatism”; a public statement by the Bureau of Public Security for Urumqi alleges that Tohti has recruited followers through Uyghur Online. Following his arrest, several of his students are allegedly strip-searched, questioned, and detained. Three of these students are formally charged, while the whereabouts of a further two remain unknown. Tohti’s case is handed to the Urumqi City Procuratorate, which is in charge of the decision to indict.
January 2014: The Communist Party of China launches a “grand strategic plan” for the Xinjiang Autonomous Region on December 19, 2013. Tohti publicly expresses his fears concerning the increased pressure on Uyghurs. Shortly afterward, on January 15, 2014, police raid Tohti’s Beijing apartment and detain Tohti. His mother is also missing for several hours and may have been taken into custody. Tohti’s wife, Guzaili Nu’er, arrives home from work to find the officers rampaging their home, removing several computers, flash drives, books, papers, and his students’ assignments. The officers force their sons, aged 4 and 7, to remain on the couch and threaten them when they tried to stand. The next day, a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman states that Tohti has been “criminally detained” on suspicion of “committing crimes and violating the law.” Tohti begins a 10-day hunger strike on January 16 to protest being denied halal food. He loses a considerable amount of weight, and concerns for his well-being.
November 2013: Security agents allegedly ram Tohti’s car, and warn him against speaking to foreign media, threatening his family. Tohti has been giving interviews with increasing regularity after a car crashed into Tiananmen Square on October 28 and was set on fire; the family inside was Uyghur. The Chinese government label the incidence as an act of terrorism.
February 2013: Authorities detain Tohti at the airport and prevent him from traveling to the United States in order to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University. His daughter, who is detained with him, is released and put on a plane to Indiana by herself.
April 2010: In a continuation of a pattern of harassment, Chinese authorities warn Tohti against leaving for an international conference on Turkic culture at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey.
July 2009: Tohti is detained after speaking out about the ethnic unrest that broke out in Urumqi, the capital of XUAR, on July 5, 2009. He is initially held under house arrest before being transferred to an unknown location where he is held incommunicado for interrogation. He is released on August 22, 2009.
2006: Tohti establishes Uyghur Online in 2006, and has been a target of frequent harassment by Chinese authorities since then.
In Their Words
“I strongly believe that my efforts and inquiries will become part of China’s progress, and I will be very proud of what I have done.” – My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen
FREE EXPRESSION IN CHINA
In recent years, addressing the dire situation for free expression in China has been one of PEN America’s signature campaigns. With the world’s largest population, and with increased economic and political heft, China’s extensive censorship apparatus limits speech both within and outside its borders. Although new digital platforms have expanded the means of expression, they have also provided more opportunities for repression: in China, even a simple Tweet can land its author in jail. Since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013, he has overseen an extensive crackdown on free speech, implementing additional laws and censorship controls on the Internet, media, and publishers. In addition, individual Chinese writers, journalists, and creative artists have been censored, harassed, imprisoned, and even disappeared after they speak out about sensitive topics such as the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, corruption, and the lack of democratic reform. Several dozens are currently behind bars because of their writings or creative expression. Read more about freedom of expression in China here.