China: Life sentence for Uyghur PEN member Ilham Tohti

by    /  October 10, 2014  / No comments

Ilham Tohti, via Flickr user: PEN American Center

The draconian sentence passed on Ilham Tohti, an academic and member of China’s Uyghur minority is a travesty of justice, PEN International said today, as it reiterated its call for his immediate and unconditional release.

“We are appalled by the extremely harsh sentence given to Ilham Tohti. Uyghur writers and scholars are an integral part of our international community of writers who are deeply committed to the values of the PEN Charter,” said Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International.

“PEN International’s global membership, gathering next week in Bishkek for our 80th annual Congress, will continue to raise their voices in protest at this unjust sentence. Ilham Tohti’s presence will be strongly felt throughout the international congress by more than 200 delegates from all five continents — even if his chair will be empty.”

PEN International has campaigned for Tohti since his arrest on 25 January 2014 and his case will feature as an “Empty Chair” at the organisation’s 80th international Congress, highlighting concerns at his imprisonment.

Tohti is one of the best-known scholars on Uyghur issues, and is a co-founder of the website Uyghur Online, which was designed to promote understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. It is now blocked inside China. Videos of his lectures and posts from the website were reportedly brought as evidence against him during the trial. Tohti is a leading member of Uyghur PEN and has been a long-standing case for PEN International. He is an honorary member of PEN America.


Ilham Tohti has been a target of frequent harassment by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on Uyghur rights since he established Uyghur Online in 2006. PEN International first began working on Tohti’s case when on 7 July 2009, Tohti was detained after speaking out about the ethnic unrest that broke out in Urumqi, the capital of XUAR, on 5 July 2009. He was initially held under house arrest before being transferred to an unknown location where he was held incommunicado for interrogation. He was released on August 22, 2009.

After his release, he suffered regular harassment by the Chinese authorities and was prevented from leaving China. In April 2010, police warned Tohti against leaving for an international conference on Turkic culture at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey. In February 2013, he was detained at the airport and prevented from traveling to the U.S. to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University. His daughter, who was detained along with him, was released and put on a plane to Indiana by herself. Tohti was often put under house arrest, and 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 November 2013, security agents allegedly rammed his car and warned him against speaking to foreign media, threatening his family. Tohti had been giving interviews with increasing regularity after a car crashed into Tiananmen Square on 28 October 2013 and was set on fire; the family inside was Uyghur. The Chinese government labelled it an act of terrorism.

For samples of Ilham Tohti’s writings please see:

Uyghur Scholar Tohti Speaks About His Concerns Before Detention
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen
The Wounds of the Uyghur People Have Not Healed

This article was originally published on on September 23, 2014. It is reprinted with permission.

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