Literary Human Rights Organization Calls on China to Uphold Obligations Under International Law

NEW YORK—PEN American Center learned this morning that imprisoned Uyghur writer Ilham Tohti has faced long periods of food deprivation and restraint by shackling during his detention in China, in violation of China’s international obligations regarding the treatment of prisoners under Article 16 of the UN Convention Against Torture, which bars acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including deprivation of food.

Tohti was finally given access to his lawyer, Li Fangping, on Thursday at a detention center in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  This initial meeting comes more than five months after Tohti’s initial arrest, during which time he has been held nearly 2,000 miles from his home in Beijing without any access to his family, his lawyer, or the outside world.

While Li reported Tohti’s health to be intact, PEN’s initial relief was mitigated upon learning he had suffered ill treatment in prison, spending 20 straight days shackled by the ankle and another 10 days deprived of food from March 1-10, presumably in retaliation for the March 1 knife attack in Kunming blamed on Uyghur separatists. Tohti had also staged a hunger strike in January to protest his prison conditions, and has lost a considerable amount of weight since his incarceration.

“To be denied food for ten days is pushing the body to its outermost limits,” said Sarah Hoffman, PEN Freedom to Write Coordinator and case manager for Ilham Tohti.  “A visit from his lawyer—which is permitted under Chinese law—is no consolation for Tohti’s five months of ill treatment in violation of China’s international obligations. PEN calls on President Xi Jinping to stop exploiting China’s security laws and its opaque pretrial detention system to silence and break those writers whose views they disfavor.”

A member of Uyghur PEN, Ilham Tohti was arrested at his apartment in Beijing on January 15, 2014, after speaking out about human rights violations against the Uyghurs on his website, Uyghur Online. He was held in secret for a month before his family received notification that Tohti had been imprisoned on spurious charges of separatism. In May, PEN American Center honored Tohti with its 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award to recognize his sacrifice in the service of free expression.

In his conversation Thursday with Li, Tohti reiterated his innocence, saying that his actions intended to unite China’s ethnic groups and maintaining that he had said nothing to support separatism.


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


Sarah Hoffman, Freedom to Write Coordinator: [email protected], t. 212-334-1660 x 111, m. 201-874-9849
Sarah Edkins, Communications Manager: [email protected], t. 212-334-1660 x 116, m. 617-947-6512