The PEN Pod: Keeping Hope Alive with Jewher Ilham
Yesterday, PEN America launched its first-ever Freedom to Write Index, a global count of writers and public intellectuals unjustly detained or imprisoned worldwide. Here today on The PEN Pod to speak about the case of her father, Ilham Tohti, an Uyghur economist, writer, and professor, who is currently serving a life sentence in China under charges of “separatism,” is activist Jewher Ilham, who was also the recipient of the European Parliament’s 2019 Sakharov Award.
Tell us about your father’s case and life sentence.
I was definitely not expecting my father to be given a life sentence. My father knew he was going to prison. He knew he was going to get arrested. In one of his interviews, he even said, “I know I might be taken away, but I’m not going to stop. I know the government might charge me for 10 years. The worst might be 20 years.” I always thought, “Yes, that will be the worst case. Nothing will be worse than that.” But he was given a life sentence. I was 19, and I was really young at the time when I heard the news. It almost crushed me, because I’ve never lived apart from my family—especially now, I’m living on the other side of the world. My dad was always the one who supports me, the entire family. And at that point, I know there’s a chance that I lost that support forever. My father is going to be in that place forever.
At that time, it was very difficult for me and my entire family. And I was keeping hope. Not only for my father actually, I was keeping hope for the Chinese government. I was hoping that the Chinese government was not going to be that bad, was not going to be that evil. I was hoping that the Chinese government would realize its mistakes and would release my father, because before sentencing my father, my father was taken away for over nine months. I was hoping every single day that, “Tomorrow he will be released. Next month he will be released.” But then instead, we received the notification of him being sentenced to life. So after that, I realized that sitting back home and crying won’t change anything, not affect anything. It would not make things get any better. Only standing up, speaking up, on my father’s behalf, on Uyghurs’ behalf, to work on something, then we can at least try to make a small change.
“I realized that sitting back home and crying won’t change anything, not affect anything. It would not make things get any better. Only standing up, speaking up, on my father’s behalf, on Uyghurs’ behalf, to work on something, then we can at least try to make a small change.”
Your father was charged with separatism. How does that differ from what he actually did as a writer and an activist?
It’s very ironic because my father had never ever mentioned separating the country in his entire life. I was born and raised in Beijing. Growing up, he told me to get along with my classmates, that we’re all human beings, we are all the same, we should treat each other with respect equally. That’s what he always told me. And I loved the environment I lived in, I loved my school, and my dad said, “Yes, it’s good that you’re loving it, and you should keep respecting and cherish the opportunity that you have.” I imagined all kinds of names that they would put on my dad, saying, “He did this crime and that crime,” but I never expected separatism charges, because that’s totally the opposite of what he was.
I thought it would make more sense if he was charged for criticizing the government, but it does not make sense that they charged my father for being a separatist, being someone who advocates for violence. That’s totally opposite of who he was—the entire time, he was trying to foster dialogue between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs, to create understanding, because all the problems that the Uyghurs and Han Chinese had in the past were because of lack of understanding, or because Ugyhurs didn’t know enough about the Han Chinese and the government, and there are stereotypes among the Han Chinese toward Uyghur people—negative stereotypes. What my father was trying to do, with his websites, the articles he published, was to clarify things, trying to do research. And I do not see that as a crime. I do not think like that in the past, I do not think like this now, and I won’t ever think that’s a crime in the future.
“Being sad, being devastated—of course, I understand, we’re all humans. We have those feelings, but it’s not going to change anything. The only solution is to stay strong and fight for the cause, and then there will be a possibility that things would change in the future.”
How do you stay positive and strong in the face of what seems like a plight that doesn’t really have an end in sight?
I’m very positive, just like my father. The day after he was sentenced—he was sentenced for life; anyone will be crushed after hearing that—my father said, “After nine months, last night was the only time that I had a good night’s sleep.” His lawyer asked him, “Why?” And my father said, “I thought I was going to be given a death sentence. It’s good. There’s still hope.” And this is how positive he is. I also believe as long as we live for one more day, there’s always hope. If I die, there are more people who are going to fight for the same cause. It’s a matter of time. Being sad, being devastated—of course, I understand, we’re all humans. We have those feelings, but it’s not going to change anything. The only solution is to stay strong and fight for the cause, and then there will be a possibility that things would change in the future.
Can you describe for me the last time you saw him?
The last time I saw him in person was at the Beijing International Airport. I took a picture at the Beijing International Airport. It’s very low quality, with my Nokia small phone, but even though the quality was so low, you could still see my father’s smile in that picture. He doesn’t really smile when he takes photos. I used to complain about that. But in that photo, he smiled. It’s very strange for me, because whenever I see that photo, it always reminds me of how happy he was, how hopeful he was.
He thought he was actually going to be able to come to the United States, this freedom land. We really believed that both of us were going to make it here, but it didn’t happen. And I still remember how security dragged him away from me, and how they asked me, “If you want to get on the airplane, you are the only person who is allowed to do that.” And I refused, and my dad insisted so many times—more than 15 times even—I said no. He pushed me and asked me to go. And he said, “This is your chance, you should hold it. You should cherish your chance. I’d rather you sweep the street in the U.S. than you stay here.”
I still remember the last sentences he told me at the Beijing International Airport was, “Look around you. Look at how this country is treating us, treating you. Do you still want to stay here?” And he just pushed me and asked me to leave. My dad made lots of decisions for me growing up, and I think that was probably one of the best decisions he had ever helped me make, even though I strongly disagreed, I strongly rejected, saying no. But he pushed me, and I’m so glad he pushed me and asked me to come here, because now I’m the only person who’s able to speak up for my family.
“Tell every single person you know, even though you can’t go out, even though we’re in lockdowns, tell your friends, loved ones, teachers, classmates. Post online. Tell everyone this is happening. There are hundreds of Ilham Totis locked up in camps. Some of their names we don’t know. And some of their names, we can probably never find out, but we need to speak up for them because they don’t have a voice, and we need to be their voices.”
There’s been an international movement to support your father. What does that mean to you, and what does it mean to him?
I consider it like armor for my father. The more attention he gets from the world, I believe the safer he is. My biggest nightmare is one day he disappears, and nobody in the world knows that he disappeared. This has been one of my worst nightmares. I was so afraid, that I haven’t heard about him since 2017—family visits were banned since 2017. That’s why international attention is really important. I really wish more people could ask, with me, how my father is doing and ask the government to release him, to release news about him, to let the families be able to visit him without having to risk their safety.
What else can we do to support your father and the movement for Uyghur people in China to have a culture and celebrate heritage in a way that is going to be beneficial to everyone?
As many of you know, my father is not the only person who has been locked up. Right now, there are hundreds and thousands, even millions of Uyghurs that have been locked up, and it’s fact, we cannot avoid it. We cannot try to not believe it anymore. We need to take action, and how do we do that? There are lots of ways. What I’ve been trying to do is to communicate with government officials from different countries in order to let them communicate with the Chinese government themselves, in order to change Chinese government’s policies or treatments toward the Uyghurs.
What the individuals like us can do is stop buying products that are made in concentration camps, that are supporting the concentration camps. Lots of companies are still benefiting from those people, who are locked up in those labor camps and reeducation camps. Those companies shouldn’t keep benefiting from those. And how do we stop that? By stopping purchasing them. I will be really grateful if people could keep talking about it. Tell every single person you know, even though you can’t go out, even though we’re in lockdowns, tell your friends, loved ones, teachers, classmates. Post online. Tell everyone this is happening. There are hundreds of Ilham Totis locked up in camps. Some of their names we don’t know. And some of their names, we can probably never find out, but we need to speak up for them because they don’t have a voice, and we need to be their voices.
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