Ilham Tohti was the winner of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. You can read Jewher Ilham’s acceptance remarks here.

Ilham Tohti is currently serving a life sentence for “separatism” because his work promoted ethnic harmony and understanding. He is a Uyghur economist, writer, and professor. 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. Tohti, a member of the Uyghur PEN Center, was born in Artush, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and has two young sons and a daughter, Jewher Ilham. 

On October 11, 2016, Tohti was awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

Case History

On January 15, 2014, 30-40 officers raided Ilham Tohti’s apartment in Beijing and detained him. His mother was also missing for several hours that day and may have also been in custody. Tohti’s wife, Guzaili Nu’er, arrived home from work to find the officers rampaging their home, removing several computers, flash drives, books, papers, and his students’ assignments. The officers forced their sons, aged 4 and 7, to remain on the couch and threatened them when they tried to stand. On January 16, a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman stated that Tohti had been “criminally detained” on suspicion of “committing crimes and violating the law.”

On February 25, 2014, Ilham Tohti was formally arrested and charged with “separatism,” a crime that could lead to life in prison or even the death penalty. His lawyer, Li Fangping, was not allowed to register to defend him.

In a public statement posted at the time of his arrest by the Bureau of Public Security for Urumqi it was alleged that Tohti had recruited followers through Uyghur Online, a website he co-founded in 2006. Hours before his detention, Tohti had reportedly expressed fears recently on Uyghur Online about increased pressure on Uyghurs following the Tiananmen Square car crash in October 2013. Tohti’s detention came shortly after the Communist Party of China launched a new “grand strategic plan” for the XUAR on December 19, 2013. This new plan pledged to make “maintaining social stability” the primary strategic goal within the XUAR.

Following Tohti’s arrest, several of his students were allegedly strip-searched, questioned, and detained as well. Three of them have been formally charged while the whereabouts of a further two remain unknown. According to reports, Perhat Halmurat and Shohret Tursun were formally charged with “separatism,” while Abdukeyum Ablimit was charged with “revealing state secrets” on February 24. The exact whereabouts of the three students are unknown; however, they are thought to be held in detention facilities in Urumqi.

According to reports, on June 19, 2014, Tohti’s case was handed to the Urumqi City Procuratorate, which is in charge of deciding whether or not to indict. He was finally granted permission to see his lawyer, Li Fangping, on June 26, 2014. Li reported that Tohti was shackled for 20 days at the start of his detention, and was denied 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. Tohti went on hunger strike for 10 days beginning January 16 to protest being denied halal food. He lost a considerable amount of weight, and concerns for his well-being mounted.

After more than six months in detention, Tohti was indicted on charges of “separatism” on July 30, 2014. His trial was held from September 17-18, with the prosecution presenting evidence that included testimony made under duress from Tohti’s students. Tohti was 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.”

On September 23, 2014, Tohti was convicted on charges of “separatism” and sentenced to life in prison. His appeal was rejected on November 21, 2014.

Ilham Tohti has been a target of frequent harassment by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on Uyghur rights since he established Uyghur Online in 2006. On July 7, 2009, Tohti was detained after speaking out about the ethnic unrest that broke out in Urumqi, the capital of XUAR, on July 5, 2009. He was initially held under house arrest before being transferred to an unknown location where he was held incommunicado for interrogation. He was released on August 22, 2009.

Chinese authorities have regularly harassed Tohti and prevented him from leaving the country. In April 2010, police warned Tohti against leaving for an international conference on Turkic culture at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey. In February 2013, authorities detained him at the airport and prevented him from traveling to the U.S. to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University. His daughter, who was detained along with him, was released and put on a plane to Indiana by herself. Authorities often put Tohti under house arrest and required visitors to his home to register with the police outside, most recently in July around the time that the U.S.-China human rights dialogue was concluding.

In November 2013, security agents allegedly rammed his car and warned him against speaking to foreign media, threatening his family. Tohti had 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 labeled it an act of terrorism.

Writings by Ilham Tohti

Uyghur Scholar Tohti Speaks About His Concerns Before Detention
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen
The Wounds of the Uyghur People Have Not Healed