We Shouldn’t Allow Ilham Tohti to Become a Second Liu Xiaobo

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

Hu Jia, a Chinese human rights activist and critic of the Communist Party of China, has closely followed the case of Ilham Tohti, an outspoken economics professor who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority. Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for promoting ethnic separatism on September 23, 2014 after a two-day show trial. He is serving his sentence in No.1 Prison in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the human rights situation continues to deteriorate. Hu, himself a former political prisoner and winner of the 2008 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, has often served as a conduit for information from Tohti’s family to the outside world. He spoke to Mihray Abdilim of RFA’s Uyghur Service about his fears that Tohti could suffer the fate of 2010 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of liver cancer last year in a Chinese prison, where his treatment was late and inadequate.

University economics professor Ilham Tohti, who was charged with promoting ethnic separatism and was handed a life sentence by a Chinese court on Sept. 23, 2014, in a file photo.

Ilham hasn’t seen his wife and children in two years. The political situation in the Uyghur region is so terrible that his wife, Guzelnur, decided not to return this year. The Chinese government has been implementing a policy called "Serve Prison Sentence elsewhere," which mainly targets high-profile political prisoners because Beijing is the country's political capital where the embassies of all the democratic countries are located, as well as the main offices of the UN. As most political events take place in Beijing, most people who are interested in politics gather there as well.

From the Chinese authorities’ point of view, Beijing’s stability is their top priority. That is why they send political prisoners away from Beijing. Liu Xiaobo was sent to Jinzhou prison in Liaoning Province, and when I was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in 2008 on charges of ‘inciting subversion of state power’ I was sent to Chaobai prison in Tianjin. Ilham Tohti holds a Beijing resident permit (hukou), and he should have the right to be tried in Beijing and serve his sentence in Beijing. But the authorities sent him to Xinjiang, which is now completely under police and military control. All of Ilham’s relatives are living in extreme fear, they don’t dare to have contact with anyone outside the region. They are reluctant to provide any news regarding Ilham Tohti due to fear. Two years ago, when Ilham Tohti’s wife Guzelnur visited Xinjiang, her relatives took her phone away from her. She cut off all communication with friends here, including myself. During the last two years they were unable to visit Ilham, and if they cannot visit him in summer, it will have been three years of him not being able to see his family. This is a very tragic and unfair situation for a family.

International pressure is vital. Ilham Tohti has already been awarded three major human rights prizes. The authorities are well aware that he has not been forgotten by the world. He has always attracted huge attention and support from the international community, so if there is any change in his situation the world would know it. I served in Chadian County prison in Tianjin from the May 7 until October 10, 2008 and was then transferred to a prison in Daxin district in Beijing, where I completed my prison sentence. Serving my sentence in Beijing made a big difference in my life, because it made it convenient for my parents, my wife and my daughter to visit me frequently, which helped me mentally. My family together with the international community played an important role in moving me from the prison in Tianjin to Beijing.

I was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 2008, an