Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti has been in prison for more than nine years now

Politics & Current Affairs

He was a professor who worked within the Chinese state system to advocate for better treatment of the Uyghurs. His reward was a sentence to life in prison.

Ilham Tohti. Image by Nadya Yeh.

Ilham Tohti, 53, is a Uyghur economist who is serving a life sentence in prison in China on a charge of “separatism,” for which no evidence has ever been made public.

Ilham Tohti was a professor at Central University for Nationalities, now Minzu University, in Beijing, where he taught economics. In 2006, he founded a website called Uyghur Online, formerly, a Chinese-language platform for Uyghur intellectuals to discuss issues of interest to their communities and to interact with the Chinese-reading public.

Ilham Tohti and other writers who published on his website were critical of some Chinese government policies, and advocated for the Chinese government to grant Uyghurs real autonomy as promised in the official name of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). But he was not a dissident. He did not promote Uyghur separatism nor did he argue for violence against the Chinese state or Communist Party; in fact, he wrote in favor of better relations between the Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

But in 2013, when he tried to fly to the U.S. with his daughter, Jewher Ilham, he was detained at Beijing Capital Airport and prevented from leaving. She went on ahead without him, and has never seen him since.

On September 23, 2014, he was charged with “separatism,” and sentenced to life in prison. The harsh sentence was a loud signal of the beginning of a campaign of repression against Uyghur culture and identity that is still going on, almost a decade later.

A list of accolades followed Ilham Tohti’s imprisonment, all of which were accepted in absentia by his daughter: the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014, the Sakharov Prize and the Martin Ennals Award in 2016, the Liberal International Prize for Freedom in 2017, and the Vaclav Havel Prize and Freedom House’s Freedom Award in 2019. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020.

Each award was met with fury by the Chinese government. Called a “separatist in support of extreme terrorism,” he was accused of hailing those who committed violent attacks as “heroes” and “luring and coercing” others to go abroad and “engage in East Turkestan separatist activities.” By awarding him the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the Council of Europe was “whitewashing” his activities, under the “false flag of human rights and freedom,” and “condoning and encouraging his criminal activities.”

His nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize was met with disdain by Beijing. His efforts to “dismember” the nation, “stoke hatred,” and justify violence and terrorism” should not be condoned in any country, said then Foreign Ministry spokesman Gèng Shuǎng 更爽.

Attempts to clear his name have been carried out by a team of young volunteers at the German-based Ilham Tohti Institute, who over the course of 18 months resurrected 3,553 articles from his old website that were published between 2006 and 2013 and reposted them under the site’s original name.

“His website was a beacon of truth for Uyghur people under Chinese strict internet censorship,” according to the institute. “Published were many controversial topics that were written fearlessly, predominantly by a group of intellectuals who were headed by Ilham Tohti.”

The institute was set up to share his legacy and work to secure his freedom.

Ilham Tohti’s current whereabouts and the conditions of his imprisonment are unknown. His daughter has not heard from him since 2017.

How the trouble started

Ilham Tohti was first detained in 2009, after the July 5 ethnic riots in Ürümchi. In 2013, fearing what might lie ahead for him, Ilham Tohti gave a comprehensive statement concerning every eventuality to Radio Free Asia reporter Mihray Abdilim to cover his “disappearance,” false confessions, death in custody from “ill health,” and even suicide. He had been under constant surveillance, and several of his students had been arrested and interrogated. He told RFA that he probably did not have “too many good days” ahead of him.

“I have a feeling that [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,” he warned.

He said that he had no marks on his body, had no lingering ailments, and would never say anything “against his morals,” unless under duress or the influence of drugs. He reaffirmed his peaceful intentions on behalf of his people, and his eschewance of terrorism. His goal had been that “Uyghurs should be able to receive the same respect given to the Chinese and they should also have the ability to preserve their dignity.”

“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,” he concluded.

“My father needs to come home to his family”

Nine years on, his daughter’s tireless advocacy on behalf of her father continues. She still has the photo she took of him before she was forced to leave him behind at the departure gate at the Beijing airport. To mark the anniversary on her Twitter feed, she reposted his final tweet, originally sent four days before his detention. “I still can’t believe it has been nine years,” she wrote.

Speaking to The China Project about her campaign to free her father, Jewher, despite seeing little visible progress, remains optimistic. “My father always taught me to be hopeful yet realistic,” she said. “I believe things will change, but what matters most is the time and effort we put in.”

She promotes her father’s case wherever she can, very often to a tragedy-weary world. Keeping a distracted audience focused on the urgency of her message is a priority and wherever she can, she links her passion with prominent issues. Her job at the Workers Rights Consortium coordinating its forced-labor project ties in directly with concerns over the coerced labor of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur and Turkic people in China’s most northwestern province of Xinjiang.

She considers her efforts will be only deemed a success when her father and every other detained Uyghur are released, but she is seeing incremental signs of hope. She has been heartened by the recognition of her father’s work and the passing of Uyghur-related legislation by the U.S. government, in the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. But she feels that more could be done on the world stage. “It is important for people to learn that we are all in this together. If we turn a blind eye to what is happening to the Uyghurs, then soon there may be a new group of victims that’s targeted by the Chinese government. But by then, it would be too late for regrets,” she says.

Jewher told The China Project that her message to the Chinese government on the anniversary is: “I hope you do know that locking up someone like my father was a big mistake…It is time for you to correct it. My father needs to come home to his family.”