Ilham Tohti (China)

Sentenced to life in prison for defending the Uyghur community in China

Ilham Tohti is a Uyghur economist and intellectual. Originally from Artux, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and settled in Beijing since the age of 16, he has worked intensively to promote the Uyghur minority rights and open up a space for dialogue with Han community, majority in the People’s Republic of China.

After years in which repression against him had been intensified (including detentions and house arrest periods), in 2014 he was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of separatism, a claim with which he had never identified.

Tohti’s activism has been recognized with prominent international awards, including the Martin Ennals (2016), the Václav Havel (2019) and the Sájarov (2019).

The attempt to silence him, as pointed out by the European Parliamentary Research Service, reflects the tightening of Chinese policy regarding the approach to religious extremism, ethnic separatism and terrorism. A strategy in which the Uyghur identity has ended up being understood as a threat to national security.

Accordingly, a sophisticated and intrusive system of police surveillance and repression has been installed in Xinjiang. It is estimated that around one million people of Uyghur ethnicity and other minorities are detained in mass internment and indoctrination camps, misnamed “vocational training” centers. In the words of Ilham Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, “being Uyghur today means not being able to contact at least one person in your family.”

In this context, Cities Defending Human Rights has launched a signature campaign to claim the People’s Republic of China:

  • Immediately release of human rights defender Ilham Tohti, who is imprisoned just for the legitimate and peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expresión, wich is internationally recognized.
  • To release other prisoners of conscience who have been sentenced for political reasons.
  • To ensure respect for the rights of minorities living in the territory of the People’s Republic of China and, specifically, that it guarantee the collective rights of the Uyghur minority.

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