Ilham Tohti

Beats Covered:
Local or Foreign:

Uighur writer, blogger, and scholar Ilham Tohti is serving a life sentence on charges of separatism. Police in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, 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 website, 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 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. CPJ has been unable to determine whether those rules have since been changed. Tohti’s daughter Jewher Ilham told CPJ via email in 2023 that the family hasn’t been able to visit since 2017, and had no news of Tohti’s situation since then. 

Seven of his students—Perhat Halmurat, Shoret 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 Uighurbiz, according to state media and 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.

The students were sentenced to between three and eight years in prison each, according to the Global Times, a state-run newspaper. Two, Akbar Imin and Mutellip Imin, were released in 2019 and 2021, respectively, according to Chinese-language human rights news website China Political Prisoner Concern, but the others remain unaccounted for after their sentences expired, according to Human Rights Watch

Tohti is being held at the Xinjiang No. 1 Prison in Urumqi, 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.” CPJ was not able to determine Tohti’s health condition in prison as of late 2023. 

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 Human Rights Award, and Liberal International, an international federation for liberal and progressive democratic political parties, awarded Tohti its Prize for Freedom in The Hague. In 2019, the European Parliament awarded Tohti its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, according to news reports.

CPJ’s messages to the Xinjiang governmental service and the Xinjiang region prison administration in October 2023 about Tohti did not receive a response.