Uighur writer, blogger, and scholar Ilham Tohti is serving a life sentence on charges of separatism. Urumqi police arrested Tohti, founder of the Uighur news website Uighurbiz, in January 2014, and held him in pretrial detention for eight months before sentencing him to life imprisonment.
Police took Tohti from his home on January 15, 2014, and the Uighurbiz website he founded, also known as UighurOnline, was closed. The site, which Tohti started in 2006, was published in Chinese and Uighur, and focused on social issues.
Urumqi police charged Tohti with separatism on February 20, 2014. He was accused of using his position as a lecturer at Minzu University of China to spread separatist ideas through Uighurbiz. On September 23, 2014, the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Tohti to life imprisonment. He denied the charges.
Several foreign governments and human rights organizations protested the sentence. The European Union released a statement condemning the life sentence as unjustified. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. was concerned by the sentencing and called on Chinese authorities to release him, along with seven of his students.
Tohti’s appeal request was rejected at a hearing in a Xinjiang detention center on November 21, 2014, that was scheduled at such short notice that his lawyer was unable to attend.
Tohti’s wife told Radio Free Asia in February 2016 that authorities allow family members to visit Tohti for only 30 minutes every three months.
Seven of his students–Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Nijat, Luo Yuwei, Mutellip Imin, Abduqeyum Ablimit, Atikem Rozi, and Akbar Imin–were charged with being involved with Uighurbiz during a secret trial held in November 2014, according to Tohti’s lawyer Li Fangping. Many were administrators for the website, according to state media. According to the political prisoner database of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, an organization set up by the U.S. Congress to monitor human rights and rule of law in China, Rozi and Mutellip Imin wrote for the site. Imin, who is from Xinjiang and enrolled at Istanbul University in Turkey, also had a blog. He was arrested when he tried to leave China.
According to The New York Times, three of the students made televised confessions on the state-run China Central Television, saying they worked for the site. Halmurat claimed to have written an article, Nijat claimed to have taken part in editorial policy decisions, and Luo, from the Yi minority, claimed to have done design work.
The seven students were sentenced to three to eight years in prison, according to the Global Times, a government-affiliated website. The length of sentence for each student was unclear and details of where they are being held were not disclosed.
CPJ was unable to determine the names or contact details of the lawyers representing the students.
Tohti is being held at the Xinjiang No. 1 Prison in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, according to Radio Free Asia. In an interview with The New York Times in 2014, Tohti’s wife Guzelnur said Tohti “has heart problems and bad lungs.”
Tohti is a member of the Uyghur PEN Center and an honorary member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center and PEN America. He was awarded the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. In 2017, the city government of Weimar in Germany announced that Tohti would receive its 2017 Human Rights Award. On November 30, 2017, Liberal International, an international federation for liberal and progressive democratic political parties, awarded Tohti its Prize for Freedom in The Hague. On October 24, 2019, the European Parliament awarded Tohti its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, according to news reports.
CPJ called the Urumqi Public Security Bureau in late 2019 but no one answered the phone. In late 2020, CPJ called the bureau but the number was out of service. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Prison Administration did not respond to CPJ’s email requesting information about Tohti’s health and status in late 2020.