China has one of the worst records on human rights. Its inhuman and savage treatment of Uyghur (also spelled as Uighur) Muslim minorities living in the far western Xinjiang region (East Turkistan) is one of the worst our world is witnessing outside how the Rohingyas are treated inside Myanmar.
Beijing’s leaders do not tolerate any dissent and consider anyone questioning their Draconian measures inside Xinjiang an enemy of the state. On September 23, Tuesday, a Chinese court imposed a life sentence on Professor Ilham Tohti (born October 25, 1969), a Uyghur economist who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University, on separatism-related charges. The Urumqi People’s Intermediate Court handed down the sentence after a two-day kangaroo trial of Prof. Tohti. The court also ordered the confiscation of all of his possessions. The 44-year-old defendant was calm during the session but shouted “I don’t accept this!” when the sentence was read out. It is the most severe penalty in a decade for anyone in China convicted of illegal political speech. Political activist Wang Bingzhang was the last person to receive a life sentence for political speech when he was convicted in 2003 after starting a pro-democracy publication outside China and founding two opposition parties in the country.
Professor Tohti, widely recognized around the world nowadays as China’s Mandela, is known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations and is a vocal advocate for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China. In 2006 Tohti founded a website called, Uyghur Online, which published articles in Chinese and Uyghur highlighting issues affecting the ethnic group. In mid-2008 authorities shut down the website, falsely accusing it of forging links to extremists in the Uyghur diaspora.
In a March 2009 interview with Radio Free Asia, Prof. Tohti criticized the Chinese government’s highly provocative and discriminatory policy to allow migrant workers into Xinjiang Uyghur while the native Uyghurs remain unemployed inside the province and their young women moving to eastern China to find work. He also criticized Xinjiang Uyghur Governor for stressing the stability and security of Xinjiang while neglecting basic human rights of the Uyghur people. That same month, Tohti was detained by authorities, accused of separatism, and interrogated.
On July 6, 2009 after ethnic rioting broke out between Uyghurs and Han in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the Uyghur Online was cited in a speech by the regional Governor as a catalyst for the violence. On July 8, 2009, Radio Free Asia reported that Tohti’s whereabouts were unknown after he had been summoned from his home in Beijing. The Chinese dissident Wang Lixiong and his Tibetan activist wife Woeser started an on-line petition calling for Tohti’s release, which was signed by other dissidents including Ran Yunfei. The Amnesty International, PEN American Center and Reporters Without Borders also issued appeals or statements of concern on his detention.
Prof. Tohti was released from detention on August 23, 2009 along with two other Chinese dissidents, Xu Zhiyong and Zhuang Lu, after pressure on Beijing from the international community. Tohti was warned against criticism of the government’s handling of riots. The authorities also prevented him and his family from leaving Beijing.
Chinese authorities arrested and detained Professor Tohti again in January 2014 along with seven of his students. They removed computers from his home. He was held at a detention center thousands of miles from Beijing in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
On April 1, 2014, Professor Tohti was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, an American human rights award given to writers anywhere in the world who fight for freedom of expression. According to the statement from PEN, Tohti, was “long harassed by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on the rights of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority. Tohti represents a new generation of endangered writers who use the web and social media to fight oppression and broadcast to concerned parties around the globe. We hope this honor helps awaken Chinese authorities to the injustice being perpetrated and galvanizes the worldwide campaign to demand Tohti’s freedom.”
Last week, Prof. Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in a kangaroo court. The court ruled that Ilham Tohti had “bewitched and coerced” students into working for the website and had “built a criminal syndicate,” according to the government’s official Xinhua News Agency. “Tohti organized this group to write, edit, translate and reprint articles seeking Xinjiang’s separation from China,” Xinhua said. “Through online instigation, Tohti encouraged his fellow Uyghurs to use violence.”
During the trial, prosecutors cited Ilham Tohti’s lectures and online writings, including his discussion of the different roots of the Han Chinese and Uyghur peoples. Speaking in his own defense, Ilham Tohti denied that he had encouraged separatism while addressing Xinjiang’s cultural and legal challenges.
Amnesty International stated that Tohti’s legal team were never shown evidence and furthermore denied access to their client for six months, and condemned the trial as an “affront to justice”. On September 24, 2014, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry criticized what he called a ‘harsh’ sentence, and called for Tohti’s immediate release.
Prof. Tohti’s lawyer Li Fangping also complained of the harsh sentence. “Of course, this life sentence is too much,” Li said by telephone from outside the courthouse. “But he has said that no matter what the result, this should not lead to hatred. He has always said he wants to create a dialogue with the Han Chinese.” The life sentence will leave Ilham Tohti’s wife, Guzulnur, with no means to take care of their two young children, Li said.
Ilham Tohti’s 20-year-old daughter, Jewher Ilham, said in Indiana, where she is studying, that she will continue to fight for her father’s release. Her father was arrested in January 2013 at Beijing’s main airport as he was boarding a plane to take her to school in the United States.
“He wanted me to stay in a land that has freedom,” she said. “I’m speaking out for him. I won’t stop.”
The European Union condemned the sentence, calling it “completely unjustified,” and urged that he be released immediately. “The EU deplores that the due process of law was not respected, in particular with regard to the right to a proper defense,” it said in a statement. After his arrest, Ilham Tohti was held for about eight months without being able to meet with his family or lawyers.
“Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished through politically motivated charges,” William Nee, a China researcher at human rights group Amnesty International, said in an e-mailed statement. “Tohti is a prisoner of conscience and the Chinese authorities must immediately and unconditionally release him.”
Chinese writer Wang Lixiong said on Twitter that the government had created a “Chinese Mandela,” referring to South African leader Nelson Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years before becoming president. Columbia University Tibet specialist Robert Barnett called the sentence “deeply shocking.”
As I have written in the past, ethnic tensions have run high and flared into violence in Xinjiang, where many of China’s Uyghurs live under a very hostile and oppressive condition. There is no doubt that the harsh sentence against Professor Tohti again demonstrated Beijing’s intolerance of criticism from even the most conciliatory of voices. By imposing a life sentence, surely, China has not learned the basics of nation-building in the 21st century.
If Beijing is genuinely serious about territorial integrity it must learn to accept criticism of its inhuman and discriminatory policies and follow a path of reconciliation with the Uyghurs and Tibetans, who are denied basic human rights, and work towards creating a sense of belonging to them, away from its faulty Hanification policies that only breed hatred and nurture secession.
In this age of information technology, Beijing simply cannot fool anyone with its Goebbels- and Mao Tse Tung- era propaganda but only its dogmatic, brain-dead Hans who are unwilling to wake-up and see the world as it is. It must learn to adapt for greater good of everyone living inside China, and not just the majority Hans. Uyghurs matter! Their Mandela needs to be released immediately.