By Yaxue Cao, published: February 24, 2016
Ilham Tohti, the renowned Uighur scholar who was sentenced to life in prison on charges of “splitting the country” has been denied visitation by his family over the Chinese New Year. Reports had earlier indicated that Ilham’s brother would be visiting him in prison on February 18, but according to his friend, Beijing-based dissident Hu Jia, speaking to Voice of America, Ilham’s brother was effectively denied permission. Hu Jia learnt of the news through Ilham’s wife. Given the lack of further information about the reasons for the denial, supporters are worried about Ilham’s physical and mental health.
Hu Jia visited Ilham’s wife and children twice recently, taking the the two boys to a science and technology museum soon after the Chinese New Year. Another of Ilham’s good friends, the Tibetan writer Woeser, also paid a visit to Ilham’s wife.
Ilham Tohti has been detained for two years since his arrest on January 15, 2014. On September 23, 2014, the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court sentenced him to life imprisonment on charges of splitting the country, also depriving him of his political rights for the rest of his life, and confiscated all his personal assets. Shortly after the sentence, the authorities moved to transfer away the 800,000 yuan (about $131,000) of the family’s life savings in the their bank account. Ilham lodged an appeal and pledged innocence to the charges. On November 21, 2014, the appeal was rejected by a higher court. On December 12 Ilham was sent to the Xinjiang No. 1 Prison to serve his sentence.
Ilham was permitted to see his family for the first time 18 months after he was arrested. His mother, two older brothers, and a younger brother spent about an hour with him on June 17, 2015. On July 8, he was able to see his wife, two children, and one older brother, again for slightly over an hour.
On October 15, 2015, one of his older brothers and his mother visited him again, and he told them he wanted to appeal his case.
Ilham’s wife, Guzelnur Ali, told Radio Free Asia that Ilham was being held in solitary confinement, was given a physical examination once a fortnight, not made to do forced labor, and was granted access to mainland periodicals as well as books that had been screened by prison authorities. But prison officials exercised severe control over visitation.
According to Chinese law, family members are allowed to visit imprisoned relatives once every month. But Xinjiang imposed additional, unlawful restrictions in Ilham’s case in order, we believe, to limit news about the Uighur scholar.
Hu Jia, in the VOA interview, described Ilham’s two children: one kindergarten-age, the other a third grader, both showing remarkable understanding of their father’s circumstances. They sought to comfort Ilham when they saw him in jail last summer, and in school they work hard to achieve. Guzelnur Ali does contract work for the library of the Central Minzu University in Beijing, from which she earns about 3,500 yuan a month (about $565), raising the children and also taking care of Ilham’s needs in prison.
Though she’s only in her 30s, she has aged considerably in the last two years, Hu Jia said.
Hu Jia told VOA that the family is strong and self-reliant, but that the wife and children have had a very hard time of it since their father and husband was imprisoned.
Contrary to the charges against him, Ilham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism. His writings show a scholar seeking reconciliation by bringing to light repressive Chinese Communist Party policies and the reasoning behind Uyghur grievances—all of which the Chinese state has sought to keep behind a veil of silence. “The path I have pursued all along is an honorable and a peaceful path. I have relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uyghurs,” he told RFA in a sober statement in July, 2013.
The trial and sentence of Ilham Tohti have elicited waves of support and protest against his treatment at the hands of the Chinese authorities and a rigged legal system. 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.
Yaxue Cao is the editor of China Change. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen, by Ilham Tohti.