Richard Lea

As tensions continue in China‘s north-western area of Xinjang, writers including Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, Siri Hustvedt and Salman Rushdie have written to the Guardian urging the Chinese president to release the Uighur writer and scholar Ilham Tohti.

Tohti, who founded the website Uighur Online in 2005 to promote dialogue in the ethnically divided region, was seized at his Beijing home by more than 30 police officers in January, disappearing for a month before being charged with “separatism” – a charge which leaves him facing life imprisonment or even the death penalty if convicted.

The letter argues that Tohti’s fate will have “profound implications for China’s future”.

“Mr Tohti founded Uighur Online with the express purpose of promoting understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and he has never advocated violence or promoted a political agenda,” the letter continues. “Instead, his website has served as a critically important counterpoint to the aggressive measures your administration has imposed against the Uighur people in the name of stability.”

Xinjiang’s budget for anti-terrorism operations has doubled in 2014, raising concerns of increased repression as the region steps up operations which the government describes as a battle against terrorism and religious extremism.

Tohti, who has been refused access to his lawyer, teaches economics at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing and has spoken out on Uighur issues for many years.

In 2009 he was detained for over a month after violent clashes in Urumqi left 200 dead. In February 2013 he was prevented from travelling to the US, where he was due to take up a fellowship at Indiana University, and held at Beijing airport. Officials allowed his daughter, Jewher Ilham, to board the plane in error, according to American PEN, stranding her in the US. With Tohti currently being held thousands of miles from his home in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, she will accept the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award in her father’s place at a ceremony in New York on 5 May.

Tohti is one of about 35 writers currently imprisoned in China, including the 2010 Nobel peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo. The number of authors in detention has remained roughly constant since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, while surveillance and harassment have steadily increased.

With freedom of expression recognised by the Chinese constitution, the letter continues, Tohti “has done nothing more than exercise the rights guaranteed to him by his country’s own laws”. Respecting human rights is a “sign of … strength”, the authors argue.

“Releasing Ilham Tohti and other writers imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression, including Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, would show the world that China is a strong world power that welcomes dissent as a crucial part of a healthy society. We know the Chinese people are ready to take this step. We hope you are as well.”