China Sentences Peaceful Uyghur Scholar Ilham Tohti to Life in Prison

Photo taken by Wang Lixiong.

Photo taken by Wang Lixiong and shared on Twitter.

Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur Muslim minority scholar in China, was found guilty of separatism charges and sentenced to life in prison by a Chinese court on September 23. The verdict of the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court was the harshest sentence imposed on a political dissident in recent years in the country.

Ilham, who advocates for peaceful ethnic reconciliation between the Uyghur Muslims and the Han Chinese, was arrested in January. Ethnic tensions between the two groups have simmered for years and at times boiled over in deadly clashes between Uyghur activists and authorities. 

The state accused Ilham of having ties to the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas group labelled an extreme separatist group by the Chinese Communist Party, and spreading dissent through the the website that he founded, Uyghur Online, which covered social issues from a Uyghur perspective. 

Ilham has denied the accusations, and in court rejected the sentence and protested before the bailiffs led him out of the room. His lawyer Li Fangping has filed for appeal and helped Ilham publicize his view on the sentence (via Wei Quan Wang, a website on Chinese human right):










1. I scream for our ethnic group, but I scream louder for China.

2. Before I was jailed, I worried that I could not withstand the torture. I was worried that I would betray my conscience, career, friends and family. But I got through this.

3. I was never in jail before, but the jail will become part of our life and my experience. I don't know how long I can carry on with this. I believe I have the courage and I am not weak. If anyone said I hurt myself or committed suicide, it would be a lie.

4. Upon reading the verdict, I feel that I bare a much larger responsibility.

5. I have left but I still expect the sun to shine and the future to come. I believe China will become better and the constitutional right of Uyghurs will be respected.

6. Peace is a gift to Uyghurs. Only peace and goodwill can build our common interest.

7. I was in foot chains 24 hours a day, only enjoyed three hours outside of jail cell during the eight-month detention. There were six other Chinese prisoners in the same cell. The situation is tough, but when compared with my students [some of whom were also prosecuted], and other Uyghurs who are charged with separatism, I should consider myself lucky. I could hire my own lawyers to defend for me, my family could attend my hearing, I could speak in court. I wish that my case helps the development of the rule of law in Xinjiang [where Uyghur people mainly live].

8. Last night I slept deeper than I have in these eight months. I never knew that my heart could be that strong. But I could not tell my mother. Please told her that they sentenced me to five years. Last night, I heard one of my students banging on the door and crying loudly, as well as some sounds of a foot chain. Did they receive their sentence as well?

9. (To my wife) My lover: For the sake of our children, please be strong, don't cry. In the near future, we will embrace each other. Please take care. Love you, Ilham.

The US and European Union have condemned the verdict. The EU criticized the Urumqi court for not respecting the due process of law as it deprived Ilham of his right to a proper defense. It also called for his immediate and unconditional release. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, criticized China for silencing moderate Uyghur voices and advised the government to differentiate between peaceful dissent and violent extremism, as it is vital to counterterrorism efforts.

Mainland Chinese dissidents published their heartbroken messages on Twitter over the Chinese Communist Party's extreme measure against a peaceful negotiator. @Zengjinyan re-posted a video interview of Ilham by Tibetan writer Woeser from November 2009 after the July 5 Urumqi riots, which left nearly 200 people dead and hundreds injured. In the video, he also mentioned that he anticipated 10 or 20 years in jail, a prediction he made even before his arrest on the most recent charges:

News and analysis website China Digital Times highlighted the part in the video that on the sacrifices Ilham made for his advocacy:

Woeser: A few years ago you were one of the wealthiest Uyghurs in Beijing, but now it’s said you’re one of the poorest. That’s such a dramatic rise and fall for a person to go through, both financially, but also politically and in terms of your safety. Now that you’re in such a precarious situation, what do you make of it all?

Ilham Tohti: I think these problems just need to be faced. As you well know, if you’re that sort of person, with ideals like that, you can easily imagine … [the consequences]. But initially, I didn’t give so much thought to it. I knew at the outset I’d face certain setbacks, maybe even being put in jail for 10 or 20 years. I thought, I can handle that, I’ve always been prepared for that.

[…] Whatever the government decides to do, I’m ready. We already lost our money when they froze our accounts. […]

[…] I think for a nationality there comes a point, and in this country with the way things are, where you can go to jail for what you say, for running a website, for just speaking the truth … which for me would be an honor. As I’ve said before, to trade my humble life to call for freedom … gladly, I’d be proud to do it.

Before the trial and shortly after his arrest in January 2014 he entrusted his close friend Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer, to release excerpts of his personal statements, in which he says he will not leave China in any circumstance:

I am not going anywhere. The issues facing the Uighur are in China, and the resolution of these issues is also in China. If I have to be imprisoned, then I will remain in a Chinese prison. After my release from prison, I will still be in China seeking a future for the Uighurs. If I die, I have only one desire: to be buried in my hometown. It would be enough of a solace for me.

When compared with the Chinese authorities attitude to Ilham in 2009 after the Urumqi riots and the current situation, Jiang Tianyong believed that the central government's attitude has changed:

Some Chinese are still trapped in the Chinese dream and are hopeful for President Xi Jinping. Back in 2009, the atmosphere during the July 5 Urumqi riots was so tense, the security police from Xinjiang went to Beijing to arrest Ilham, but Beijing security police disagreed because the higher-up authorities disagreed. On the contrary, in 2013, Xinjiang authorities finally went to Beijing and successfully took away Ilham because Xi is now the leader.

Political cartoonist Biatailajiao compared the life sentence of Ilham to the killing of peace — with a dove with olive leaves.

Political cartoon by Biatailajiao on Ilham Tohti's life sentence.

Political cartoon by Biatailajiao on Ilham Tohti's life sentence.

Wang Lixiong, a scholar on Tibet society and Ilham's friend, reposted a photo he took a few days before Ilham's arrest:

I took this photo for Ilham on January 8, 2014. I never imagined that this was our last meeting. A few days later on January 15, he was arrested from his home in Beijing and today he was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, I don't believe that from now on I will only see him in photos because belated justice will still arrive.

Su Yutong, a former reporter from Deutsche Welle who interviewed Ilham many times in the past, urged other reporters to do something for the imprisoned scholar:

#FreeIlham As a former reporter from Deutsche Welle, I had interviewed Ilham on many occasions. I reported his moderate stances and perspectives in my reports. Did these reports become evidence of his crime? For those reporters who had quoted him talking about his love for his nation, his insistence on peace, shouldn't we do something for him!!!

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