At first glance, 19-year-old Jewher Ilham may seem like a typical college student. As she clutched her smart phone, the face of a cat imprinted on the cover peered through her fingers. She spoke in short sentences with little pause. Her thoughts pulled her in various directions as she spoke about her love for dance, juggling parental expectations, and what she has learned to cook during her past year in a small college town in the U.S.
But Jewher Ilham’s story is far more complex than many of her peers. One day this January, she received a knock on her apartment door in Bloomington, Indiana. A family friend delivered news that her father, Ilham Tohti, a prominent academic and blogger in China, had been arrested. His crime: writing about human rights issues concerning the Uighur minority, of which he is a member. “I didn’t know what to think. I just froze when I heard the news. I was in complete shock,” she said.
Chinese authorities have accused Ilham Tohti of separatism and fomenting ethnic hatred through Uighurbiz, the website he founded several years ago. Authorities said the website “concocted, distorted and hyped up” acts of ethnic bloodshed. The website has been shut down since his detention, according to reports. Meanwhile, Ilham Tohti could face between 10 years and life in prison, or even a death sentence if convicted of separatism, according to his lawyer.
Jewher Ilham firmly defends her father’s innocence. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was very careful in his work, he didn’t cross any lines,” she said. “He spoke up for human rights, not just for the Uighurs, but for everyone, and felt no one should face discrimination.”
In February 2013, Jewher Ilham was scheduled to fly to Indiana with her father to help him settle into a year-long visiting scholar position at Indiana University. But at the airport, security agents prevented him from boarding the plane while she left for the U.S. For the following 11 months, as she attended university classes, Jewher Ilham spoke to her father every morning over the phone. The last time they spoke, a day before his arrest, they touched on the usual matters: her classes and whether she was eating right. Little did she know that her life would change so drastically a day later.
“It feels empty without him. I feel very lonely. For most of my life, he has always been near me. … I worry about how he is doing, how he is being treated,” she said.
Back in Beijing, her stepmother and two brothers remain under constant surveillance by authorities. They have received virtually no updates from authorities since Ilham Tohti’s arrest, aside from a warrant in February that revealed he had been taken to a detention center in Urumqi, thousands of miles away from their home. The family has not been allowed to see him even once. They have had to rely on the Internet for news and developments in his case. Furthermore, Ilham Tohti has been denied access to his lawyer, according to his daughter.
In her father’s absence Jewher Ilham has become his steadfast advocate, speaking out for his release, despite the odds given China’s abysmal record as one of the leading jailer of journalists in the world. CPJ research shows that at least 50 percent of the journalists imprisoned in China in 2013 were ethnic minorities, including Uighurs. CPJ highlighted Ilham Tohti in its recent 10 Journalists To Free from Prison campaign ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
Jewher Ilham is not giving up. Last month, she spoke before lawmakers at a hearing in the U.S. Congress. And this past week, she accepted an award on behalf of her father at the PEN American Center Literary Gala in New York. While in New York and Washington, Jewher Ilham’s schedule has been packed with meetings with various organizations, including CPJ, to help draw attention to her father’s imprisonment.
While the odds may be stacked against Ilham Tohti in China, he has a tireless and bold ally championing for his release thousands of miles away. “The world needs to know that what is being done to him is wrong. I hope that he will be freed one day,” she said. “We have to keep trying.”