CECC Chairs Issue Statements on Ilham Tohti’s Sentencing, Concerned about Fate of Students Detained With Him

Congressional-Executive Commission on China | www.cecc.gov

October 1, 2014

(Washington DC)—The Chairman and Cochairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) condemn the September 23 conviction and life imprisonment of Uyghur scholar and rights advocate Ilham Tohti and call for his unconditional release.

“Chinese leaders have sentenced a thoughtful, well-respected professor to life in prison simply for writing and speaking about the problems facing the Uyghur ethnic minority group,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, CECC Chairman. “In doing so, Chinese authorities have missed an opportunity to dialogue with someone who could build bridges between Han Chinese and Uyghur people and resolve tensions in Xinjiang. We call on the Chinese government to unconditionally release Ilham Tohti and anyone else detained in relation to his case.”

“Tohti’s sentencing is a reminder of the deeply flawed nature of China’s system of justice, particularly as it applies to Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities,” said Congressman Chris Smith, CECC Cochairman. “It’s been a bad year for human rights in China, and Tohti’s conviction shows that even moderate voices for reform and ethnic harmony will not be tolerated in Xi Jinping’s China. Harshly criminalizing peaceful dissent will not create stability in Xinjiang, it only worsens the prospects for peace and prosperity for Han and Uyghur alike.”         

In her testimony at a Commission hearing in April 2014, Tohti’s daughter Jewher Ilham stressed that her father is “exactly the sort of person a rational Chinese political structure would seek to engage with in order to address the conditions of the Uyghur people." “Instead,” Ms. Ilham stated, “By arresting my father and threatening him with charges that carry the severest of penalties it has driven many Uyghurs to a point at which they can’t even imagine that their wholly justified grievances can get any sort of a hearing under Chinese rule.” 

The verdict in Tohti’s case accused him of engaging in separatism via the Web site he founded, Uyghur Online, and of “coerc[ing] students to work for the website and engage in criminal activity.” However, Commission reporting found that, in his writings, teachings, and interviews, Tohti consistently advocated for dialogue between Uyghurs and Han Chinese people, and sought a peaceful and sustainable resolution to the problems facing Xinjiang. In a 2011 essay, Tohti wrote that by founding Uyghur Online, he sought to promote “mutual understanding as well as dialogue among ethnic communities.” There are concerns that eight or more young Uyghurs, former students of Tohti and former contributors to Uyghur Online who were detained in January 2014, may also face highly politicized trials and heavy sentences.   

Chinese authorities have reportedly subjected Tohti to abuses of the rule of law since he was detained in January 2014, including through denying him access to his defense attorneys for more than 5 months, denying him food for 10 days, and shackling his feet for more than a month, causing his ankles to become infected. In addition, authorities have reportedly failed to provide Tohti with adequate medical treatment for a number of serious physical ailments, and failed to address complaints that fellow prisoners beat and otherwise harassed him.