PEN International is seriously concerned for the well-being of Uyghur writer, academic, and Uyghur PEN Member Ilham Tohti, who was arrested at his home in Beijing on January 15, 2014, and remains detained incommunicado. While Tohti has yet to be formally charged, the authorities have announced that he is under investigation for promoting Xinjiang’s independence and abetting separatists through his website Uyghur Online. PEN believes he is being held for peacefully exercising his right to free expression, and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

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Background Information

On January 15, 2014, Uyghur writer and academic Ilham Tohti was arrested by authorities at his home in Beijing. His whereabouts are unknown and he has yet to be formally charged. Tohti’s lawyer, Li Fangping, was reportedly turned away when he sought information as to Tohti’s place of detention, and has not been allowed to register to defend him. In a public statement by the Public Security Bureau of Urumqi it is claimed that Tohti is under investigation for the promotion of separatism, having allegedly recruited followers through Uyghur Online—a website he founded in 2006. According to reports, Tohti had recently expressed fears on Uyghur Online about increased pressure on Uyghurs following the Tiananmen Square car bomb attack in October 2013.

In 2009, Tohti spent over six weeks in detention after speaking about the ethnic unrest that broke out in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), on July 5, 2009, and has since suffered regular harassment by the Chinese authorities. Tohti was reportedly prevented from leaving his home and contacting people outside at least four times in 2013. Visitors to his home were required to register with the police outside, most recently in July around the time that the U.S.-China human rights dialogue was concluding. In February 2013, Tohti was prevented from traveling to the United States to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University.

Born in Atush, Xinjiang, on October 25, 1969, Tohti is a prominent economics professor at Minzu University in Beijing and an outspoken critic of China’s ethnic policies in the XUAR. Tohti is a member of Uyghur PEN. In 2006, he founded Uyghur Online, a website designed to promote understanding between the Uyghur ethnic group and Han Chinese.

PEN is concerned by an apparent renewed crackdown on dissent and criticism of Chinese government policies by Uyghurs. On July 15, 2013, Mutellip Imin, an ethnic Uyghur, student, and volunteer with Uyghur Online, was detained by police at Beijing International Airport as he attempted to return to Turkey, where he is attending university. Imin was reportedly held without charge for 79 days in his hometown outside of Hotan, Xinjiang. Released on October 1, the police reportedly retained his passport, effectively barring him from returning to Turkey to continue his studies. Similarly, on September 28, 2013, Perhat Halmurat, editor of Uyghur Online, was reportedly taken into custody at Beijing International Airport on charges of “attempting to escape the country” as he was about to board a flight to Turkey, where he had received a scholarship to study anthropology at Istanbul University. He was released 16 hours later following pressure from a number of prominent activists. Additionally, Hailaite Niyazi, also known as Gheyret Niyaz, former editor of Uyghur Online, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for “endangering national security” following his conviction on July 23, 2010. PEN is seeking to confirm reports that at least four of Ilham Tohti’s students were arrested around the same time that Tohti was arrested in January 2014.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China is home to many Muslim Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, some of whom have waged a low-level separatist struggle for independence from Chinese rule for decades. Here, repressive government policies have led to severe economic deprivation within the Uyghur community, and have fomented ethnic tension between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. PEN believes that the Chinese government has used the activities of armed opposition groups in the region as an excuse to suppress peaceful political and cultural expression. The XUAR has experienced several violent clashes in recent months, and its unrest has been linked to other attacks in China. The BBC estimates that more than 100 people have been killed in violent clashes in the XUAR this year. On October 28, 2013, a fatal car crash and explosion in Tiananmen Square—which resulted in the deaths of two tourists and left 38 others injured—was later attributed to members of an Uyghur separatist movement by the Chinese government. On December 19, 2013, the Chinese government launched a new “grand strategic plan” for the XUAR, in which it pledged to make “maintaining social stability” the primary strategic goal within the XUAR.

Write A Letter

  • Protesting the arrest of Uyghur writer and academic Ilham Tohti, and calling for his immediate and unconditional release;
  • Urging the authorities to reveal where he is being held and seeking assurances of his well-being;
  • Protesting the renewed crackdown on Uyghurs who criticize the government;
  • Reminding the Chinese authorities that Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for freedom of speech and that as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for freedom of legitimate expression, the right not to be arbitrarily detained, and the right to a fair trial, they are obliged to "refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose."

Send Your Letter To

His Excellency Xi Jinping
President of the People’s Republic of China
State Council
Beijing 100032
P.R. China

Please note that there are no fax numbers for the Chinese authorities. We recommend that you copy your appeal to the Chinese embassy in your country asking them to forward it and welcoming any comments.

**Please contact PEN if sending appeals after February 28, 2014. Please keep us informed of any action you take in regard to Ilham Tohti’s case, including any responses you receive from the authorities.**