Organization Deepens Focus on Protecting Digital Expression by Honoring Uyghur Chinese Writer Jailed for Online Activities

NEW YORK—PEN American Center announced today that it will confer the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award upon imprisoned Uyghur economist and writer Ilham Tohti. Thirty-five of the 38 writers who were in prison at the time they won the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award since its inception in 1987 have been freed due in part to the attention and pressure generated by the award.  PEN hopes that this spotlight will serve as a catalyst for a global effort to release Tohti. His daughter Jewher Ilham, a student at Indiana University, will accept the award on her father’s behalf at the PEN 2014 Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on May 5.

Long harassed by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on the rights of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority, 44-year old Tohti—a member of the Uyghur PEN Center—was arrested by authorities at his home in Beijing on January 15, 2014.   The arrest occurred in front of Tohti’s two youngest children, aged 4 and 7, who were forced to sit silently and watch as their home was ransacked and their father taken away.

An official arrest warrant and notification of the charges presented to Tohti’s wife on February 25 indicate Tohti has been charged with “separatism” and is being held incommunicado at a detention center thousands of miles from Beijing in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Even Tohti’s lawyer has no access to his client. Tohti stands accused of recruiting followers through his now-banned website Uyghur Online.  The charge of “separatism” carries a penalty of 10 years to life imprisonment, or even the death penalty in extreme cases.

“Tohti represents a new generation of endangered writers who use the web and social media to fight oppression and broadcast to concerned parties around the globe,” said PEN American Center President Peter Godwin. “We hope this honor helps awaken Chinese authorities to the injustice being perpetrated and galvanizes the worldwide campaign to demand Tohti’s freedom.”

The 2014 PEN American Center Literary Gala, the largest in the organization’s history, will raise funds to support PEN’s work in over 100 countries to promote free expression and defend writers under threat. PEN American Center will also honor author Salman Rushdie with the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award, and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo with the inaugural PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Digital Freedom Award at the 2014 Gala.


Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is a community of 3,500 writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. Its distinguished members carry on the achievements in literature and advancement of human rights of such past members as Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, and Susan Sontag. To learn more, visit


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Click here to sign the petition for Ilham Tohti’s release.