Ilham Tohti: A Short Introduction

Updated on December 10, 2018, the International Human Rights Day


Ilham Tohti_Lego

LEGO portrait by Ai Weiwei

Prepared by

Late Elliot Sperling, professor of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University

 Yaxue Cao, editor of

and the Ilham Tohti Initiative


Ilham Tohti is the most renowned Uyghur public intellectual in the People’s Republic of China. For over two decades he has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Chinese over the present-day repressive religious, cultural and political conditions of the Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic people living mostly in modern China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. As a result of his efforts he was sentenced in September, 2014, to life in prison following a two-day show trial. He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of what has been done to him.

Ilham was born in 1969 in Artush, in Xinjiang, and began his studies in 1985 at the institution that is today the Central Minzu University in Beijing, and known for minority studies. He eventually became a faculty member at the same university and a recognized expert on economic and social issues pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia. As a scholar, he has been forthright about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, and his work led to official surveillance and harassment that began as early as 1994. From time to time he was barred from teaching, and after 1999 he was unable to publish in normal venues.

In order to make the economic, social and developmental issues confronting the Uyghurs known to China’s wider population, Ilham established the Chinese-language website in 2006 to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Chinese on the Uyghur Issue. Over the course of its existence it was shut down periodically and people writing for it were harassed. Ilham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism and sought reconciliation by bringing to light Uyghur grievances, information the Chinese state has sought to keep behind a veil of silence.

Following massive Chinese repression in Xinjiang in 2009, Ilham was taken into custody for weeks for posting information on Uyghurs who had been arrested, killed and “disappeared.” In subsequent years he was subjected to periodic house arrests and barred from leaving the country.

Western governments and the European Union condemned Ilham Tohti’s arrest and sentence. He received the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center in May 2014. In January, 2016, several hundred academics petitioned the Chinese leadership for his release. In October, 2016, he was nominated by 43 MEP for the Sakharov Prize. In the same month, he received the Martin Ennals Award.

Ilham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism and sought reconciliation. His parting words before arrest were that the two peoples must learn to respect each other, co-exist in peace, and not hate each other.

Since his arrest in early 2014, China has put over at least one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region into concentration camps with the purpose of “transforming” them into “normal” Chinese. Hundreds more Uyghur intellectuals have been disappeared, imprisoned, or sent to camps. Testimonies coming out of the region reveal torture, death and forced mass indoctrination. It is a full blown human rights disaster that Ilham Tohti had tried in vain to prevent.

Brutality perpetrated on the Uyghurs is an issue that has greatly alarmed the rest of the world, while it confronts China’s questionable economic and political drive known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Ilham Tohti’s case is particularly important given the crucial international issues and human rights concerns on which it touches: the fostering of moderate Islamic values in the face of state-directed religious repression; efforts to open lines of dialogue between a Muslim minority and a non-Muslim majority population; and the suppression of non-violent dissent by an authoritarian state.

There has been no news of Ilham Tohti since late 2016. He has supposedly been incarcerated in Xinjiang First Prison in Urumqi.




Essential documents about Ilham Tohti:

Statement to the Uyghur Service, Radio Free Asia before his arrest, July, 2013.

My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen by Ilham Tohti.

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang by Ilham Tohti.

Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013

Ilham Tohti, a 30-minute Documentary



12 responses to “Ilham Tohti: A Short Introduction”

  1. sa Fahlbeck says:

    Hello !

    I belong to a Sweish Amnestygroup who are working for the freedom of Ilham Thoti. We wonder if Ilham understands English. We want to send him greetings in his prison.

    Kind regards from

    Åsa Fahlbeck, Amnestygroup 139, Sweden

    Date: Mon, 8 Feb 2016 02:22:03 +0000 To:

  2. […] Ilham Tohti: A Short Introduction « China Change Ilham Tohti’s life and career have exemplified the ideals of Andrei Sakharov. His nomination for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought has been supported by organizations and renowned individuals, including the Dalai Lama and Sakharov Prize laureate Hu Jia. // Will the EU dare upset Beijing by awarding him the Sakharov Prize? […]

  3. It looks as if the guy got a little carried away: the Urumqi public security bureau, for example, noted in January that Ilham Tohti had called participants in terror attacks ‘heroes’, and ‘incited students to hate the nation and government, and to topple the government’.

    State media reports published following the verdict say that Ilham Tohti used his “Uyghur Online” website and teaching position as platforms to transmit ethnic separatist ideology, and lured or bullied students into becoming a separatist force. They say that “he acted in an organized and orchestrated fashion to write, edit, translate and spread numerous articles with separatist content, wantonly spreading separatist ideology and maliciously attacking state policies or measures on ethnic groups, religion, economics and family planning .” He is said to have “incited ethnic hatred and created ethnic adversity” so as to “provide an excuse for Xinjiang terror cases and encourage violent acts.” He is even said to have fabricated survey results to exaggerate the strength of support for Xinjiang independence.

    Is that separatism?

    Ilham Tohti was charged with and convicted of separatism, which is codified in article 103 of the PRC Criminal Law:

    For those organizing, plotting or acting for separatism or to undermine national unity, the ringleader, or those who have committed major criminal acts, will be given life imprisonment or a fixed term of 10 years or more imprisonment; active participants shall be given between 3 and 10 years fixed-term imprisonment; and other participants will be given a fixed term of less than 3 years imprisonment.
    A second clause of the same article provides for a distinct, lesser offense of “inciting separatism”:

    Those inciting separatism or the undermining of national unity, will be given a fixed term of up to 5 years imprisonment, short-term detention, supervised release or deprivation of political rights; where they were the ringleader or committed major criminal acts, they will be given a fixed term of 5 years or more imprisonment.
    This second offense, with its much lighter punishments, even for principal offenders, intuitively seems a much better fit for what has been revealed of the charged conduct. This second clause was added as an independent offense in 1997 revisions to the Criminal Law and is distinguished from separatism in explanations in that ‘incitement refers to using language, text, images and other such means to encourage or publicize to others to make them believe its provocative content, or attempting to make others go carry out the conduct which is being incited.”

    By contrast, the offense of Separatism requires organizing or plotting to divide the nation or undermine national unity, which seems to be beyond what has been alleged here. The distinction, seems to be one about the degree of action directed towards the goal of separatism, ‘Incitement’ is just words in the hopes of inflaming others to act towards separatism, while the ‘organizing and plotting’ element in separatism is essentially a type of criminal preparation working concretely or conspiring to carry out a separatist action.

  4. Harald says:

    It is usually a bad idea trying to change another culture and country from the outside. Some lauded the “Arabian spring” when it started. I already then saw war coming. If we say “China Change” I would put Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang and their predecessors on the first place. Name one country with more reform on an almost daily basis. New laws are created, a whole legal system is established, public participation in politics, easier access to education, health insurance for all people, reduction of unecessary bureaucracy, etc. etc. Change by secession and revolution isn’t necessarily the best way. The Soviet Union has changed to something much worse than what China has become, that should never be forgotten.

  5. yücel Tanay says:

    Hello !

    I support to freedom of Ilham Tohti.FREE ilham TOHTİ freedom UYGHUR nations

    Kind regards from

  6. […] Bekri went on television to criticize, a Chinese-language website run by Professor Ilham Tohti and his students, accusing it of “inciting violence and spreading rumors.” In March 2014 during […]

  7. […] Change This article was first published on China Change web […]

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