Chairs Call for the Release of Ilham Tohti on the Ninth Anniversary of His Sentencing

(Washington)—Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the Chair and Cochair, respectively, of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), issued the following statement on the ninth anniversary of the conviction and life imprisonment of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti:        

“The PRC wants the world to forget about Ilham Tohti, forget that it sentenced him to life in prison simply for seeking to build bridges of understanding among ethnic communities. We will not forget him, nor the others imprisoned and silenced as part of the PRC’s genocidal effort to erase the culture, language, and religion of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Ilham Tohti must be immediately released, and until that time, his freedom and the atrocities committed in the XUAR must be one of the first topics raised by every U.S. official and Member of Congress visiting China. The PRC must take concrete steps to end genocide and release all political prisoners.”    

Background: Ilham Tohti is a Uyghur scholar who was sentenced to life in prison on September 23, 2014, on the spurious charge or “separatism” and has reportedly not been allowed visits from family members since 2017. During his pre-trial detention, authorities reportedly subjected him to abuse, including by shackling his feet for more than a month and depriving him of food and water. The current status of his health is unknown. The ninth anniversary of the sentencing of Ilham Tohti comes as Chinese authorities have increasingly sentenced Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim Turkic people in the XUAR to lengthy prison terms. XUAR officials have in recent years targeted Uyghur students, scholars, and other members of the Uyghur cultural elite for detention.

Additional case information can be found on the CECC’s searchable Political Prisoner Database