Ilham Tohti is a Uyghur economist serving a life sentence in China, on separatism-related charges. He is a vocal advocate for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China, was the host of Uyghur Online, a website founded in 2006 that discusses Uyghur issues, and is known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations. Tohti was summoned from his Beijing home and detained shortly after the July 2009 Ürümqi riots by the authorities because of his criticism of the Chinese government’s policies toward Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Tohti was released on August 23rd after international pressure and condemnation. He was arrested again in January 2014 and imprisoned after a two-day trial. For his work in the face of adversity he was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (2014), the Martin Ennals Award (2016), the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize (2019), and the Sakharov Prize (2019). Tohti is viewed as a moderate and believes that Xinjiang should be granted autonomy according to democratic principles.
Professor Tohti was convicted on September 23 to life in prison at the Urumqi People’s Intermediate Court after just a two day trial for advocating separatism. Mr. Tohti’s personal assets were also ordered to be seized by the government as a further punitive measure.
Amnesty International called the sentence “deplorable” with “no basis in reality” with Human Rights Watch stating that his trial has been a “travesty of justice”. The PEN American Center called Tohti’s trial “a farce” and that “[he] should have been a welcome ally in China’s efforts to build a harmonious society”.
Both the US and UK foreign ministries as well as the European Union also weighed in on the decision. A spokesperson from the UK’s foreign office stated that, “Without any transparency, it is hard to have confidence that proper judicial standards were upheld”, which was echoed in a statement made by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arguing that “this appears to be retribution for Professor Tohti’s peaceful efforts to promote human rights for China’s ethnic Uyghur citizens”. Such support signals that there is widespread consensus regarding the inadequate handling of the case. The EU called the sentence “completely unjustified” and deplored that “the due process of law was not respected, in particular with regard to the right to a proper defence”.
“As a Uyghur intellectual, I naturally have deep feelings for my ethnic group, and I feel uneasy about its impoverishment and its many sufferings attributable to historical and circumstantial factors. I have equally deep feelings for my country, and, having traveled to dozens of other countries, I have come to the conclusion that national pride runs deep within my veins. The pain and pride experienced by both my ethnic group and also my countrymen are my own pain and my own pride.
“I am an academic dedicated to researching Xinjiang issues and Central Asian sociology, economics, and geopolitics. Although some people today continue to describe me as a political figure, or hope that I will become one, from the start I have maintained that I am only a scholar, and harbor neither the intention nor the desire to be politicized. Outside of my scholarship, I wish to be known solely as an emissary and a conduit helping to make connections and promoting ethnic exchange and communication. However, the call of duty implicates my family, which causes me great suffering.”
“Today in Xinjiang and elsewhere, we are witnessing a unique period where ethnic issues are of unprecedented importance and difficulty. Whether rationally or emotionally, I cannot accept any part of the nation being separated. With regard to ethnic issues, I do not oppose the natural fusing of ethnic groups, because it reflects a natural as well as a social law. Historically, both the Han and Uyghur ethnicities are products of multiethnic mingling. However, I do oppose a false and calculated ethnic harmony. Use of administrative means to keep ethnic groups together is, in essence, a use of force that breeds division, whereas tolerance as a means to encourage diversity will lead to mutual harmony and unity.
“We can solve ethnic problems only by exploring ethnic autonomy and making China a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and attractive country. In terms of governance in China today, our multiethnic and multicultural reality has complicated the issues and problems of this era of social transformation. Yet, for culture and creativity, this diversity is an invaluable source of wealth benefiting all ethnic groups. Whether looking vertically at Chinese history or horizontally at the world today, it’s clear that the greater a country’s cultural diversity and tolerance, the greater its creativity. “
“Any thinking that doggedly stresses a particular group’s cultural uniqueness and superiority, thus making it non-inclusive, is closed-minded and a thing of the past. It will inevitably kill the culture it means to enshrine and protect. In China’s Constitution, provisions governing ethnic autonomy provide a good framework for coexistence and the development of a multiethnic culture. But in practice, we need to explore how to better implement it through laws and regulations. We should take the initiative to learn from the successful experiences of other countries to fashion a suitable model for China. firmly believe that as long as we have the wisdom and vision for the future, as well as the courage to face reality head-on, China will be able to find a path to ethnic autonomy that achieves an ideal balance between the integrity of a unified nation and ethnic autonomy.”
“After the tragedy on July 5, 2009, the world suddenly paid attention to Xinjiang issues. I too attracted widespread attention and was inevitably treated as a political figure. I do not reject any person or group’s interest in Xinjiang issues, but I have always endeavored to avoid being treated as a political symbol in any way, even when it is well intentioned. It is my belief that I will not be doing a service to my ethnic group and my country unless I remain a scholar—a ‘clean’one at that —and use my free time to help others and serve the public interest.
“Precisely because of this strong belief, since July 5th, 2009 I have doggedly refused to take a single cent from foreign organizations, whether diplomatic entities or NGOs, when I encountered financial difficulties resulting from external pressure. Even during business dealings, I was unwilling to make any money through foreign connections. I could have sat at home and made money from my political and economic contacts in Central Asia, Europe, and America. If I were a Han, maybe I could have profited this way, but as someone who has been under suspicion, I have to maintain even stricter standards for myself, bearing more pressure and facing more trials than Han intellectuals could possibly imagine.”
“From the beginning, it was a rational idea born out of my education and training that ethnic relations should be built through reasonable, patient, tolerant, and moderate approaches that respect history and reality and focus on the future. As I have practiced it over time, such an attitude has grown to be a natural feeling of mine. As a university professor, I have the strong desire to share my views, hopes, and methodology with my students. Unlike a lot of teachers, I diligently prepare handouts and lesson plans for each class, and for a long time I have offered open and voluntary classes on Xinjiang issues on Saturdays. “
“I love my mother deeply, who suffered great hardships in raising me. I love my still impoverished and long suffering ethnic group. I love this land which has nurtured me. I earnestly hope my homeland can become as prosperous and developed as the interior of China. I worry about my homeland and my country falling into turmoil and division. I hope that China, having endured many misfortunes, will become a great nation of harmonious interethnic coexistence and develop a splendid civilization. I will devote myself to Xinjiang’s social, economic and cultural development, to the interethnic understanding, and to finding the way to achieve harmonious ethnic coexistence amidst the social transformation today. These are my ideals and personal objectives, and the choices I have made have their roots in my family’s history; my upbringing; my mother’s teachings; and my education as well as personal experiences.
“Because of the sensitive nature of ethnic issues, for a long time there has existed not only social divisions between Han and Uyghur people, but also a lack of regular communication between Han and Uyghur intellectuals. This division, as well as mutual suspicions, have worsened the ethnic situation. Yet, amazingly, there have been almost no public discussions about it, and the atmosphere around it is both plain strange and also terrifying. As a result, I founded the “Uyghur Online”website at the end of 2005, to provide Uyghurs and Hans with a platform for discussion and exchange. Of course, I knew that there would be an intense clash of opinions, but I believe that confronting differences is not frightening. What is truly frightening are silenced suspicions and hatred. After founding “Uyghur Online,”I began to make an effort to interact with Han intellectuals in order to bring Xinjiang issues to their attention, thus allowing them to contribute their valuable perspectives and experiences to the discussion, and to introduce them to Uyghur culture and society.”
Prepared Statement by Professor Tohti
“There is a lot of tension around here. In the past few days, I have been under constant surveillance by police vehicles and national security police officers. I have been under heavy supervision.
Furthermore, anyone I have interacted with recently, regardless of ethnicity, Uyghur or Han Chinese, has had to suffer through interrogations by the government. I have realized that I don’t have too many good days ahead of me and I have a feeling that they [the Chinese government] may not have the best intentions in dealing with my situation. Therefore, I feel that it is necessary for me to leave a few words behind before I no longer have the ability to do so.
Firstly, I would like to emphasize that currently, there are no physical marks or bruises on my body. About two months ago, the school [Central University for Nationalities] performed physical examinations on all the teachers, including myself. The results of my physical examinations have been recorded on their computers and were sent to all major hospitals in Beijing. They should be available in their archives. I am currently very healthy and do not have any illnesses.
The last time I fell ill was after I was beaten by a few national security officers at the airport on February 2, 2013.
The police officers punched my heart at the time, and after the incident I had chest pains whenever I felt tired. However, I no longer feel the chest pains and I am in perfectly healthy condition.
If I do pass away in the near future, know that it is not because of natural illness and it certainly will not be suicide. I am a Uyghur, a father, and a righteous man. I do not commend suicide and neither does the Uyghur culture. Therefore it is impossible that I will ever commit suicide. This is my first point.
Secondly, I do not want an appointed lawyer and I will never accept an appointed lawyer under any circumstances. I have my own lawyer who [the Tibetan writer Tsering] Woeser knows. Other people are aware of this as well.
Thirdly, I will never say anything that is against my morals and principles, nor will I ever say anything that may harm my people [Uyghurs]. If I say anything that deviates from my morals after my arrest, know that those are not my words. Any word that is at conflict with my morals or brings harm to the Uyghur people would most likely have been fabricated by the Chinese government.
The only possibility of myself uttering such words would be due to drugs or other substances intended to coerce a false confession. Regardless of the interrogation strategy or the torture method, regardless of what body parts I am about to lose, know that I will never speak words that will work against the interest of Uyghurs, nor will I ever betray the Uyghurs. The only way I may utter such words is under abnormal circumstances. When I say abnormal, I am referring to an abnormal state of mind, perhaps influenced by drugs.
My fourth point is that I have never associated myself with a terrorist organization or a foreign-based group. The path I have pursued all along is an honorable and a peaceful path. I have relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uyghurs.
I have relentlessly appealed for equality for Uyghurs in regards to their individuality, religion, and culture. I have persistently demanded justice from the Chinese government. However, I have never pursued a violent route and I have never joined a group that utilized violence.
I have never started an organization, but I have attracted a number of friends and supporters, both Uyghur and Han Chinese, who share my vision. It would be absolutely unreasonable of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) government to use this fact against me. The only things I have ever wanted and requested are human rights, legal rights, autonomous regional rights, and equality. Uyghurs should be able to receive the same respect given to the Chinese and they should also have the ability to preserve their dignity. This is my fourth point.
I will never view myself as a criminal, and I feel that it is necessary for me to make these points.
Many of my friends have been arrested lately. The number of police officers around me has been gradually increased. They have been watching me even on school campus. I have never been surrounded by this many police officers, even around the July 5th incident in 2009.
Since July of this year , I have not been able to communicate as much with journalists and reporters abroad. Since the website (Uyghurbiz.net) attracts a lot of visitors and activities, the Chinese government is not pleased with it either. I am almost certain that their intentions are corrupt this time, but I would like to say that mine are not. I have always led by example through advocating for diplomatic and peaceful ways to request justice and equality. I believe that Beijing is the ideal place for education, and I believe that this city is a key to achieving equality and justice.
Without the understanding and support of all of the 1.3 billion people in China, it would be extremely difficult for us to achieve our human rights goals. One of my foremost objectives so far has been to introduce and explain who we really are to the Han Chinese population, and this is how I have gained so many friends and supporters who are Han Chinese.
I have never spoken like this before, but I am almost confident that the Chinese government is trying to get rid of me this time.
I remember that three years ago I had refused to comment about my opinions on Zhang Chunxian [the ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region]. However, I have expressed my thoughts and opinions about him recently through my writings, lectures, and letters I have written. I am certain that Zhang Chunxian wasn’t very happy about what I had to say. I have recently received “communications,” and I must say that I don’t feel very safe at the moment. Please save this conversation from today and be sure to keep it until you need to release it, when it is necessary.”