PEN American Center Protests Unjust Life Sentence for Uyghur Writer Who Has Committed No Crime

NEW YORK—More than two hundred supporters joined PEN American Center last night at a public candlelight vigil for Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur writer and scholar who was sentenced to life in prison on September 23 in China on unfounded charges of separatism.

Acclaimed novelist Barbara Kingsolver read a haunting statement from Tohti at the vigil, which took place just outside The New School Auditorium at 66 West 12th Street. The statement, written in 2013 to be published in the event of his arrest, foreshadows Tohti’s later imprisonment and persecution, and avows Tohti’s commitment to defend and uphold human rights even as the Chinese government closed in.

“Tohti is exactly the kind of influential moderate the Chinese government should have courted in their professed efforts to build social harmony,” said Dominic Moran, Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN American Center. “Instead, they criminalized him. By sentencing Tohti to life in prison, China is slamming the door on peaceful dialogue, choosing a path of brutal and inhumane repression in full view of the world.”

Tohti, a 44-year old father of three, has in the past week become a new global emblem of China’s intensifying repression. Universally known as a peaceful teacher, scholar, and writer, Tohti sought to build bridges between China’s Uyghur and Han populations through his website Uyghur Online. His writings explicitly reject separatism, or the dividing of China. The unprecedented life sentence handed down to Tohti has shocked the world, prompting statements of condemnation from President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other world leaders.

A Member of the Uyghur PEN Center, Ilham Tohti was awarded the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in May 2014.

High-resolution photos and short video from the event will be available for download by Tuesday, September 30, 1:00am at


Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 3,500 American writers working to break down barriers to free expression worldwide.

Sarah Edkins, Communications Manager: [email protected], (617) 947.6512