China Will Stop at Nothing to Silence Dissent

NEW YORK—The Government of China has unjustly targeted Ilham Tohti’s students as a means to further punish the writer, professor, and Uyghur PEN Member, PEN American Center reported in a statement today.  Seven of Tohti’s students from Minzu University of China were sentenced to three-to-eight years in prison this morning on spurious charges of separatism, for which Tohti is also serving a life sentence.

“These students have become unwitting casualties of China’s campaign to break Tohti’s spirit as a warning to other would-be critics of the status quo,” said Dominic Moran, Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN American Center. “The persecution of his students underlines the extent to which Chinese authorities will go to suppress even the most moderate voices of dissent.”

Students who agreed to testify against the professor received lighter sentences than their peers. Sources close to the trials say the students confessed or agreed to testify under severe duress and possibly torture.

Tohti received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for his efforts to facilitate online dialogue between China’s ethnic Uyghur minority and Han majority populations. He was arrested in a raid on his home in January 2014 and held incommunicado for six months before receiving a life sentence on unfounded charges of separatism in September, upheld on appeal. His wife Gulzenur and their two young children have since faced increasing harassment by the authorities, their assets frozen and access to the outside world ostensibly denied.

“That those who dare speak out against injustice in China are forced to think twice about the potential danger to their family, colleagues, and friends is both a violation of international rights protections and an affront to human decency,” said Moran. 

The sentence comes down on the anniversary of the 2008 arrest of Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most prominent dissident writers, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his writing in 2009. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest without charge since her husband’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.


PEN American Center is an association of 3,500 American writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide.

Dominic Moran, Director, Free Expression Programs,, +1 212-334-1660 x 105
Sarah Edkins, Communications Manager,, m. +1 347-927-9505