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Elliot Sperling, February 5, 2017
In memory of Elliot, who passed away last week. I recovered this from my email archive, dated September 17, 2016, the day after Ilham Tohti was nominated for the Sakharov Prize. It is published here for the first time. – Yaxue Cao
The nomination last week of the imprisoned Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is welcome recognition of the role this courageous individual has played in working for the fundamental rights of a beleaguered people, a people subject to one of the harshest regimens that China visits on any nationalities or collective groups within its borders. But the persecution of Ilham Tohti serves as an example of how China’s repressive policies create damage and danger that go far beyond its own borders. There are good reasons for international concern and outrage over Ilham Tohti’s imprisonment.
On the heels of recent attacks in Europe, and concern about new ISIS-aligned actors outside the group’s core Middle East area, a recent report from the New America think-tank has revealed, among other things, that China’s treatment of its Muslim population is boosting radicalization: over 100 Turkic Uyghurs, Muslims from the region of Xinjiang in China’s northwest were recruited into ISIS response to the harsh state repression visited on them as Muslims and as Uyghurs in full disregard of common human rights norms. But the particularly harsh persecution of Ilham Tohti demonstrates a terrible dynamic in that process: the one-party Chinese state, by targeting moderates effectively nurtures extremism as the outlet for legitimate grievances over China’s policies.
On January 15, 2014 Ilham Tohti was spending the afternoon resting with his two young sons in his apartment on the campus of Minzu University where he taught economics. When a large contingent of police and state security agents burst through the door, suddenly and unexpectedly, waking the napping professor, his life changed forever. He was dragged from his apartment and has spent all of his subsequent days behind bars. As for legal formalities—such as they are for an outspoken liberal Uyghur intellectual in China—his trial on charges of supporting separatism, advocating violence among his students, etc.—took all of two days and produced a life sentence. And what had he really done? He had written about what had been happening in Xinjiang in a way that was markedly different from the official line; he circulated word of what he had found openly and on his own website; and perhaps most dangerously, he invited response and discussion. Though fluent and literate in Uyghur, he constituted his website as a Chinese-language venue so as to initiate dialogue between Uyghurs and Chinese. In retrospect that, as well as Ilham’s charismatic teaching, was intolerable. And so he was taken from his family and months later subjected to a kangaroo court (witnesses he asked for were not called; in contravention of Chinese law he was tried in a venue hundreds of mile from Beijing, his place of residence and the place in which his supposed crimes had allegedly been committed).
The intrinsic merit in Ilham’s activities and the egregious injustice of his imprisonment have been acknowledged internationally: he was the recipient of the PEN American Center’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and just recently named one of three Finalists for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. And now he is a nominee for the Sakharov Prize.
One might be inclined to see in Ilham Tohti’s case just one more sad instance of Chinese authoritarian repression and hostility to free thought. But in the present climate of anxieties about extremism, about Islam and about terror, his case is especially significant. Given China’s record of cynical misuse of the terrorism issue to attack dissent among Uyghurs and Tibetans, observers are rightly concerned that the state’s adoption of a new, broad anti-terrorism law just this past December has set the stage for actions that will exacerbate China’s problems.
By any measure, Ilham Tohti is a moderate person. A Muslim, he is liberal in his practice and entertains close friendships across lines of nationality and religion. But from the perspective of the authorities, moderates such as Ilham—non-violent critics who operate openly—are threats and are targeted for severe repression. The ills and abuses they bring to the surface are ignored and fester. Thus, the persecution to which Uyghurs are subjected continues. Bans on beards and head scarves in public venues, coercion to violate religious prohibitions concerning food and drink, violence and incarceration as a response to dissent: this is precisely the kind of abuse that, in the absence of a moderate core seeking dialogue, lends itself to exploitation by extremists. Indeed, China seems to go after the moderates because they can be seen: they operate in the open and call for dialogue and honesty about what the state is doing. Their imprisonment leaves the field to extremists who operate below the radar; they become the only ones articulating to an aggrieved population anything contrary to the official line. For all its propaganda about fighting extremism China is actively abetting its rise: in this instance among a population that has previously been noted for its moderation and restraint. Given current anxiety about Islamist extremism, the international community ought to be horrified by what China is doing. The Islamic world, wherein this extremism is wreaking the greatest havoc should be even more alarmed—and should make the persecution of writers and intellectuals such as Ilham Tohti a prominent issue in its relations with China.
The original sin, so to speak, in modern China’s dealings with Uyghurs as well as Tibetans was its annexation of these peoples without any regard to what they wanted. (And for most it was unwanted.) This original sin and the brutal periods of Chinese rule that followed have fostered a situation in which a free, open discussion of the history of Uyghurs and Tibetan under PRC rule cannot be entertained without severe damage to the myths that are enforced as the official line. Thus, when discontent surfaces the Party finds itself structurally incapable of asking what it is doing wrong. Instead, the question becomes “Who is doing this to us?” And it answers the question by seeking scapegoats. Not long ago Tibetan disgust at the appearance in the media of fake “Chinese Lamas” produced an incoherent and irrelevant response from official quarters denouncing Tibetan separatism, something that only exacerbated Tibetan frustration at their concerns not being taken seriously. Matters in Xinjiang have brought no serious questioning of the repressive Chinese policies. When French journalist Ursula Gauthier questioned China’s deployment of the terrorism narrative to defend its actions there she was expelled from China. And Ilham Tohti, who tirelessly pursued a principled quest for dialogue and change, languishes in a prison in Xinjiang. The injustice inherent in Ilham’s case is symbolic of the way China is making extremism the only option for the disaffected in Xinjiang. It should be a primary concern of the international community.
Elliot Sperling is the former chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University and formerly the Director of its Tibetan Studies Program. He is the author of “The Tibet-China: History and Polemics.”
China Change, September 19, 2016
Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木), a Uighur scholar known for his incisive writings on China’s policies in Xinjiang, was named by the European Parliament to be one of the five nominees for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on September 15. Ilham has for years been a vocal advocate for the economic, cultural, and religious rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang. His role as a rational voice for Uighur autonomy led to his arrest in January, 2014, and a sentence to life imprisonment in September that year.
Incidentally, on the same day that Ilham won the nomination, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was received by the European Parliament where he spoke of his admiration for “the spirit of the European Union” and the need for different ethnicities and religions to exist together harmoniously in China.
In an interview from Beijing with Radio Free Asia on September 15, the renowned Chinese dissident Hu Jia (胡佳) remarked: “As both an ordinary Chinese citizen and the 2008 Sakharov Prize recipient, I feel that if one person in all of China deserved the Sakharov nomination and was qualified to receive the award, Ilham Tohti would be first on the list.”
“Ilham is a thorn in the side of the Communist Party,” he added. “He’s the conscience of the Uighurs, and has been given the most severe sentence. The people he represents have been repressed and spurned, so there’s a lot of pent-up hostility and bad blood. But the key to relieving this pressure is Ilham’s freedom. He was nominated for this award by members of a parliament elected by the people to represent Europe’s values, so it has a special place, and the Chinese authorities know the weight of it. They know that for whoever gets this prize, it will give both that person and the human rights issue they represent a lot of attention. This would put enormous pressure on the Chinese government. So there’s no doubt that they’re going to exert pressure on members of the European Parliament.”
Hu Jia said that Ilham Tohti’s wife and child just returned from Xinjiang to Beijing, but that they’ve been warned and intimidated by the authorities not to speak to anyone about Ilham.
Ilham Tohti’s daughter Jewher told China Change in an interview that her step-mother, Ilham’s wife Guzelnur, took the couple’s two children back to Xinjiang for their summer vacation, and that they visited him on one occasion, speaking face-to-face for about an hour. They were only allowed to speak about family affairs. She didn’t speak further about the circumstances of the meeting, but said that Ilham seemed to be healthy.
Ilham’s Sakharov nomination has Hu Jia feeling both glad and anxious. It so happened that, on another occasion recently he recounted how, in 2008 while in prison, the Communist Party authorities tried to force him to reject the prize:
In 2008, I was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” because I engaged in activities to promote human rights and liberty before the Olympic Games.
The European Parliament awarded me the Sakharov Prize, and I was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I was in prison, the head of the Beijing municipal political police led a group of public security and foreign ministry officials to pay a visit to me in prison — they were putting me under intense pressure, trying to force me to make a public announcement that I rejected both the Sakharov Prize and the nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In exchange, these officials said that they would reduce my sentence by 2.5 years, and also pay me double the cash award of the Sakharov Prize, as economic “compensation.” These secret political police, and the jailers in their charge, lobbied me with this proposal on up to seven occasions. I flatly rejected all of these despicable, filthy political dealings. Thus, I am deeply aware of how moral support, and awards from the international community, place the Communist Party’s security organs and foreign affairs officials under enormous pressure.
Hu suspects that Ilham will receive the same treatment if he’s also given the award—though he suspects that the Communist Party will first attempt to interfere with the process of deciding the laureate in the coming weeks.
Hu Jia told RFA that Ilham “opposes all forms of violence and bloodshed. If he’s awarded the Sakharov Prize, then his ideas, what he advocates, what he has attempted to realize, his wish that we’re all able to live with dignity as part of a big family, will be recognized by the entire world. The Xinjiang question will be looked at squarely by the world, as well as the question of the Uyghurs.”
Hu Jia added that not only Han Chinese like himself support the nomination, but Tibetans, including the well-known writer Woeser (唯色), are also behind it.
Elliot Sperling, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at the Indiana University Bloomington, told Radio Free Asia: “China’s human rights situation is getting worse and worse, and the Party’s ethnic policies in Tibet and Xinjiang are being resisted by the people. The Communist Party doesn’t want to reflect on why its policies have been unsuccessful—instead, they look for scapegoats. Ilham Tohti is a scapegoat. The fact that he has received the nomination shows that the world is not going to be blind to this.”
James Leibold, a professor of China’s minority policies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, used Twitter to encourage the European Parliament to give Ilham Tohti the prize. “No more worthy recipient of the Sakharov Prize than Ilham Tohti. It’s time for MEPs to resist pressure from China,” he wrote.
In March 2015, Hu Jia met Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, for half an hour, during which time he brought up Ilham’s case, as well as his support for his receipt of the Sakharov Prize. Similarly, in July of this year in Beijing, he gave a letter to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to be delivered to the European Council’s president Donald Tusk, who was participating in a summit meeting in the Chinese capital.
The letter said, in part: “If I were to meet you and meet your for only one minute, I would use those 60 seconds to tell you about one Chinese citizen: Ilham Tohti.”
Perhaps as a result of the absence of sustained international attention, Ilham’s family in China continues to suffer persecution. Jewher Ilham told China Change that Ilham’s niece, a young nurse in Kashgar, was taken away by police earlier in the year after her cell phone was checked by police when she was at a mall buying clothes (Uighurs say it’s now become common for the police to simply stop them in the street and forcibly examine their phones). The police detained her after seeing photos of her uncle, Ilham Tohti, on the phone, and possibly also because of her refusal to cooperate with them, Jewher speculated. She said that she hopes that someone will raise the case of her cousin to the Chinese government.
Give the Sakharov Prize to an Uighur Intellectual, André Gattonlin, Marie Holzman, and Noël Mamère, July 18, 2016
Essential readings about Ilham Tohti:
A Short Introduction to Ilham Tohti, 2016 (downloadable PDF)
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen by Ilham Tohti, 2011.
Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (downloadable PDF) by Ilham Tohti, 2011-2013.
Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti, November, 2013.
Ilham Tohti, a 30-minute Documentary , October, 2015.
Tang Jingling, August 28, 2016
Chinese was published on May 20, 2016
“I can’t help but sigh over how much more civilized the South African apartheid regime of 50 years ago was compared to the Chinese Communist regime of today.” – Tang Jingling
“Other people don’t know better than the Chinese people about the human rights condition in China and it is the Chinese people who are in the best situation, in the best position to have a say about China’s human rights situation.” – Wang Yi, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, June 2, 2016.
Recalling his nearly 30 years in prison, Nelson Mandela wrote in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones—and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” Having now spent 22 months in Chinese Communist prisons, I’d say that, based on what I’ve witnessed and experienced, the Chinese Communist Party treats prisoners who don’t enjoy special privileges even worse than animals. And those who are imprisoned for seeking their political rights or defending freedom of religion and other human rights are repressed with particular brutality.
Based on my observations, my impression is that the different levels and standards of prisoner treatment reflect the bureaucratic hierarchy of the country. People who have risen to higher levels of the bureaucracy will be held in a better detention facility or cell or will otherwise receive better treatment. Then there’s the principle that originated with the Empress Dowager Cixi: “Better it go to the foreigners than to my slaves.” Generally speaking, in other words, foreigners are less likely to be compelled to engage in forced labor, and their religious beliefs are granted a certain degree of respect.
And then there’s a large group of prisoners who try to curry favor and build “connections” with people inside the prison in order to enjoy all sorts of special treatment and largess. This leads to an abundance of unfathomable corruption and shady deals. The subjective arbitrariness of prison regulations, the excessive deprivation of prisoners’ rights, and the lack of transparency and external oversight have all contributed to this sort of abnormal economy of cash and power within China’s notorious system of detention.
Of course, these different classes of treatment are relative among prisoners themselves. On the whole, all prisoners are living under inhumane conditions. It’s like one detainee said after being transferred from Guangdong Provincial Detention Center (which mainly holds high-ranked officials) to Baiyun District Detention Center (BDDC): “The moment I stepped foot into the Provincial Detention Center, it was like I’d fallen from high up in the heavens into the depths of hell. I never imagined until I got here that there was an even deeper level of hell!”
The ugliness that exists outside detention facilities is often hidden behind various veils. But inside the wall of the detention center, that ugliness reveals itself unadorned, 24 hours a day. In conditions unfit even for animals, a person must be extremely disciplined to avoid being overcome by hatred and maintain his humanity to avoid being swallowed up by wild beasts. It truly is a very difficult challenge. When it’s impossible for us to eliminate evils directly, we must not condone these evils with our silence. Even though I now find myself behind bars because of my efforts on behalf of human rights and democracy, I too am unable to remain silent. For me, this report is my attempt to bear witness to injustice and evil so that I can avoid taking any part in such evils myself.
Below, I will describe seven different aspects of the evil in China’s detention centers.
I. Inhumane and degrading treatment, including rampant beatings and torture
On the day I arrived at BDDC, I was kicked by one of the center’s auxiliary police officers for refusing to squat down when he ordered me to do so. Within the jail’s heavily guarded walls, detainees still wear manacles and shackles around the ankles. When guards escort a detainee from place to place, they often order him to squat as a completely unnecessary way of degrading him. When I got to Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center, I saw this kind of thing much less frequently, but there were still quite a few prisoners who were treated this way.
I have never seen guards beat any detainees at Guangzhou No. 1, but beatings were not at all uncommon at BDDC. As the guards patrolled the cell block, they would call a detainee to come out of his cell into the passageway. (According to veteran detainees, there weren’t enough security cameras to monitor the passageway fully.) First, he would be subjected to a stream of verbal abuse. That was followed by the sound of blows raining down on his body before the injured detainee was returned to his cell. I saw this kind of thing with my own eyes.
At Guangzhou No. 1, I’ve seen only one detainee—a Uyghur—beaten up like this, and it seemed like that was a common occurrence for Uyghurs like him. Even though the beatings were being carried out by investigators, rather than detention center guards, authorities at the jail and the procuratorial official stationed at the center never made any factual record of those detainees’ injuries, let alone file any reports or hold anyone accountable. Han Chinese detainees were no different: the detention center allowed investigators to interrogate detainees for 24 hours straight, with no breaks, until they were finally able to force out the confessions they were looking for.
There was one detainee who entered Guangzhou No. 1 the same month as I did who was interrogated continuously like this for nearly a month and only allowed back in his cell for a short time every day around nightfall. This is a technique commonly used by Communist Party discipline inspectors, and many “official detainees” experience this kind of thing as well. It’s just that for them it happens in the illegal private jails set up by the Party’s committees for disciplinary inspection. After those “official detainees” offer up their forced confessions there, they get sent to the detention center.
In the cells, each of the cement slabs on which we sleep is fitted with two fixed iron rings. These “fixed shackles” are used by the detention center as a means of disciplinary punishment. A person forced to wear ordinary shackles is still able to move about on his own and take care of many of his daily needs. But once fettered to these fixed shackles, routine daily tasks like eating, getting dressed, or using the toilet all mean that the detainee has to rely on others for everything, making it a terribly agonizing experience.
There’s an even more “advanced” and perverse technique, which is to shackle a detainee’s hands to the fixed iron rings as well. In this way, even sleep requires one to curl up like some poor shrimp. This type of punishment generally lasts anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. In 2014, I saw this in action in Cell 1309. There was a young man clearly suffering from psychological illness and intellectual impairment. The Communist judicial authorities diagnosed him with anti-social personality disorder and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Because he couldn’t control his actions, he was shackled for around a week.
Anyone sentenced to death, regardless of whether or not there’s any cause for disciplinary punishment, will also be given the fixed shackles up until the time when he is sent to be executed. One Pakistani man entered the detention center in 2009 and has been subjected to fixed shackling since 2014. Under this long period of suffering, he was forced to write several letters to the Guangdong High Court and the Supreme People’s Court begging either to be unshackled or put to death. Wang Qingying (王清营), who was detained along with me, was given the fixed shackles a number of times and suffered even more serious tortures as well.
I don’t know how much longer this kind of inhumane torture will be allowed to continue. Scenes like this serve as a metaphor for the lives of our enslaved people. So much of our agonizing struggles are attempts to break free of these shackles of our bondage. Despite all of their efforts, our people continue to suffer deprivations because those efforts are focused on digging themselves out of the pit associated with their enslavement. Does our generation plan to sit still and remain as slaves, destined to be forgotten by history while the dictatorship flourishes? Or will we make a place for ourselves in history by parting the Red Sea and walking that path out of the desert and into the land of freedom?
An even more common form of inhumane treatment is the overcrowded and confined nature of the cells. Out in the real world, even pigs raised for slaughter aren’t treated like this because everyone knows that this will cause serious harm to the pigs. But for months, even years at a time, prisoners are locked up together in these dark, damp, and cramped spaces with no sunlight or fresh air. This in itself causes suffering and is the root of many human rights and humanitarian problems in the detention centers.
For example, it’s normal at BDDC to lock up 20 or even 30 people in a space of 20–30 m2. The detention center often has a large number of empty cells, so I don’t understand why they need to fill cells beyond their capacity like this. Much of the work burden for guards is already being handled by detainee labor and hired security guards, so adding more cells shouldn’t be all that difficult.
At BDDC, detainees are typically forced to sleep lying packed together, with one person’s feet next to another person’s head and vice versa. It’s common to be awoken from a deep sleep with a kick in the face from the person next to you or even find your cellmate’s toes rubbing up against your mouth. At Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center, we have to sleep all the way from the cell entrance to right in front of the toilet. The irony is that one of the lines of the detention center rules we were forced to recite every day went like this: “It’s forbidden for two people to share a quilt.” These days, the authorities make detainees sleep crowded together far more tightly than two people sharing a quilt.
I had another experience that was even more revolting. When I arrived at BDDC they weren’t issuing toothbrushes or cups and didn’t allow detainees to bring or buy their own. Instead, they forced detainees to use old, discarded toothbrushes and cups and share these among several individuals at once, without any consideration of the fact that many detainees suffered from infectious diseases. Veteran detainees told me that this was not the first time something like this had happened. Fortunately, a clever cellmate of mine fashioned a cup for me out of an old chrysanthemum tea container, which I used until I left that facility. At BDDC, meal trays and spoons were also shared. Guangzhou No. 1 is a bit better in this respect, as each detainee is issued a set of personal items to use upon arrival.
A detainee who had once been jailed in the Tianhe Detention Center told me that detainees there were forced to sit and “meditate” for long periods at a time. I don’t know what the situation is like there now, but BDDC had a rule that detainees were required to “meditate” while the guards were patrolling the cell blocks, about a half-hour each morning and each afternoon. The situation is basically the same at Guangzhou No. 1.
II. Forced labor
My labor assignment here consists of keeping watch on the night shift and some manual piece work. Two inmates in each cell are made to keep watch at night. (Sometimes, even more are assigned to this work—especially when conditions are so crowded that there’s not enough room to sleep. In Guangdong Provincial Detention Center and other jails where there are fewer prisoners, they don’t have this kind of work assignment.) Each shift is made up of two people, who take turns keeping watch for periods of 90 minutes to two hours. Detainees enjoying special treatment don’t have to keep watch or do piece work; instead, they get lighter assignments. In some prisons, they have a small number of inmates who are permanently assigned to the night watch, instead of forcing the majority of detainees to be awakened from deep sleep like they do in the detention centers. I think this is a completely unreasonable measure they use to make detainees’ lives miserable.
As for manual piece work, there’s assembling “red envelopes” and auspicious decorations for Chinese New Year; folding and packing Christmas cards under the brand names “Giftmaker” and “Sue Ryder” (a charity registered in the UK); packing disposable food-service gloves and plastic medical gowns; and affixing advertising stickers for Uni-President Food brands (a Taiwanese company). From what I can see, these jobs are pretty steady, so the detention center must have long-term commercial contracts. Rarely has the piece work that I’ve had to carry out lasted longer than three hours at a time. At BDDC, there wasn’t ever any piece work assigned to my cell. But there are cartloads of stuff coming and going in the passageways outside all the time. At Guangzhou No. 1 I have a cellmate from Chongqing who was arrested together with his wife. When they were able to see each other at trial, she told him that the women’s cell block had been given very heavy labor assignments and were even forced to work overtime every day late into the evening.
From what I’ve seen and experienced first-hand, it seems that labor assignments at detention centers have been decreasing but that not much has changed inside the prisons. Outside the VIP cells holding high officials and foreigners, other prisoners still have to work pretty hard. They generally are engaged in rather intensive industrial labor. In this respect, the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Justice are actually operating China’s biggest sweatshop factories. The millions of detainees they have under their jurisdiction far outnumber the employees of any company in the world.
III. Correspondence, Visits, Meetings, Money, and Goods
In the two years I’ve been detained, the only time I’ve been allowed to write a letter was an order form for two books that I sent my wife in March of this year. My lawyer told me that people concerned about me on the outside had been sending me letters and cards, but detention center authorities have been quietly confiscating them all and I haven’t seen the slightest trace of any mail. They use these despicable methods against political prisoners in particular. When Mandela was in prison, he was still able to receive letters after they’d first been inspected and censored by the prison authorities. I can’t help but sigh over how much more civilized the South African apartheid regime of 50 years ago was compared to the Chinese Communist regime of today. The Chinese authorities inspect all mail and guards can restrict access to letters almost at will, without any rational or predictable rules.
According to the provisions of the Prison Law, convicted prisoners may regularly receive visits from family members.* The overwhelming majority of those held in detention centers have not yet been convicted, but without exception they have been deprived of the right to visit with family or friends. Even telephone calls are forbidden! Since many cases drag on for some time without decision, these detainees are completely cut off from their friends and family. The cruelty of this is hard for someone who hasn’t experienced it to comprehend. Another side-effect of this inhumane treatment is that it prevents any information from inside the detention center from reaching the outside world, giving the green light to all sorts of corrupt misdeeds and cruel abuse. Ordinary prisoners may keep up with how their family is doing through letters and photographs, but even this is denied political prisoners.
Moreover, the facilities that detention centers make available for meetings with lawyers are often seriously inadequate, and those for visits with family are even worse. Meetings with lawyers are carried out under the eyes and ears of detention center guards, something that people in normal countries with rule of law would probably find unbelievable. Not long after I and other political prisoners arrived at Guangzhou No. 1, the authorities there made a point of “re-arranging” the lawyer meeting room by moving the fixed round-backed chair on which we detainees sit further away from the the dividing screen, which prevents lawyers from showing clients the prosecution files or verifying evidence.
For those detainees who’ve used their “connections,” deliveries of money and “care packages” become a kind of paradise. They have many opportunities to eat food that’s been sent in by their families, something that ordinary detainees can only look at with envy. Some of the kinder of these privileged detainees will share their food with their cellmates. These are without doubt the easiest moments to remember in the hellish environment.
*Editors’ note: Tang’s wife recently filed a complaint about being deprived of the right to visit her husband.
IV. Indifference to or outright deprivation of religious freedom
The authorities prohibit religious books that are important to me as a Christian, like the Bible, from being sent into the detention center. Quite a few foreign detainees who are Muslim or Christian can receive copies of the Quran, the Bible, or other religious books in their own languages. But I haven’t seen any Uyghur detainees with their own copies of the Quran.
Uyghur detainees are routinely deprived of their religious rights, and though Falun Gong practitioners are deliberately being kept away from where I’m being held, I can’t imagine that their situation is any better than mine. Even when their cases aren’t connected in any way, political prisoners are deliberately kept apart from each other. Perhaps the Communist authorities learned some lessons from the way that the apartheid government in South Africa imprisoned all of its political prisoners together in one place.
Cultural and educational rights aren’t protected either. Not only does the detention center not have a library or reading room, they also prevent detainees from receiving books or subscribing to newspapers or magazines. Political prisoners always want to do some studying on their own, but they’re placed under tighter restrictions than ordinary prisoners. It was over a year after I was jailed that I was first allowed to receive a few books sent by my family, but only books related to law were permitted. I had a young Uyghur man in my section of the detention center teach me the Uyghur alphabet and asked my family to send me a Uyghur-Chinese dictionary to help me study the language further. But those plans never got anywhere because of meddling by the authorities.
For the last several months I’ve again been inexplicably prevented from receiving books. It was only last March that I was finally able to receive two books. And last month was the first time I was able to send out a letter to my family. I’ve heard that many political prisoners, like Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) or Xu Zhiyong (许志永), have had to go on hunger strike in order to fight for their right to read.
The ridiculous thing is that every day the detention center authorities force detainees to recite from memory the center regulations, which are mainly about rules of behavior and rights and obligations. They make you recite these every day, and each person has to pass muster. The more rational thing would be to have the detention center employees be the ones who had to memorize and recite these rules. Once you memorize the regulations, then they make you recite a bunch of old moral education rhymes like Di Zi Gui (《弟子规》, Rules for Being a Good Student) and San Zi Jing (《三字经》, Three Character Classic). Everything depends on how good or bad the detention center officials or guards are, but they don’t take into consideration the real needs of detainees at all.
Even if there is some benefit in reciting these texts, the way they’re forced on people leads them to become hated. These are just the same old habits of forced brainwashing that the Chinese Communists have always used. Human nature is as easily twisted as the plum blossoms in Gong Zizhen’s famous essay, “The Pavilion for Sick Plum Trees.” In order to accommodate these ridiculous regulations, many detainees who haven’t even been convicted yet already begin proactively copying and memorizing the prison regulations while they’re still in the detention center. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!
V. Food and drink, sanitation and medical treatment, and buying things
During the month I was at BDDC, I lost 5 kg because the food was terrible, the portions were small, and I wasn’t allowed to purchase any food to supplement. I’m not a fat person to begin with, so a weight loss of 5 kg is no small thing. They only served two meals at BDDC, one at 11 am and the other at 4 pm. Later, after I revealed through my lawyer that they weren’t serving us any breakfast, they again started serving breakfast twice a week—a plain steamed bun one day and the other day a bowl of gruel so thin it should technically be called water. I have no idea whether they continued serving that pitiful breakfast after I left. A veteran detainee at BDDC told me that they’d always served breakfast in the past, and he didn’t know why they’d recently become so stingy.
For our main daily meal, they’d serve a few pieces of leafy vegetable (but because leafy vegetables were more expensive, they only served them a few times). Typically we’d get some bean sprouts of inferior quality or one or two slices of winter melon, pumpkin, or carrot with a slice or two of fatty pork or the kind of thin ham sausage that’s wrapped in plastic. The rice was yellowish and often smelled of mildew. That was pretty much the entire menu. During afternoon calisthenics, I would often feel dizzy because of poor nutrition.
At Guangzhou No. 1, we basically got double what they served at BDDC and the rice was an ordinary white color. They served breakfast of two cold buns or pineapple buns. Both places served winter melon, pumpkin, and white radish with the skin and roots still intact, and they never picked out the yellowed leaves or tough roots of leafy vegetables. At Guangzhou No. 1 for quite a while they gave us frozen duck wings with down still on them that sometimes emitted a terrible odor. According to a jailmate who had worked in the frozen food industry, these likely had been frozen for quite a long time. They were finally removed from the menu only after causing a widespread bout of diarrhea.
Owing to the crowded and confined conditions of detention, sanitation is quite inhumane. Each cell only has a squat toilet, and the water faucet for flushing the toilet is the same one used to get water needed for other daily uses. So when you need to wash bowls and eating utensils, you have to do it right above the toilet. Before they collect the trays after our meals, we have to rinse them very quickly above the toilet before handing them in. Heaven only knows whether or not they wash them again or disinfect them back in the kitchen!
At BDDC, they forced detainees to eat each meal in 3–5 minutes. At Guangzhou No. 1, you get about 10 minutes. According to a detainee who’d been held at the Guangdong Provincial Detention Center, there they have a dedicated washbasin and faucet, separate from the toilet. That proves beyond a doubt that those who operate and manage detention facilities are in fact cognizant of ordinary human needs.
How to dry clothing is also a major problem. There is a row of plastic hooks on the wall of the enclosed courtyard space that’s attached to each cell. This is where we’re supposed to hang our clothes to dry. The door to this courtyard is only opened once in the morning and once in the afternoon, for less than an hour each time. Sometimes it’s even less, not even half an hour. If the weather is rainy, it can take several days for clothes to dry and you have no other clothing to change into. You have no choice but to wear clothes that have grown mildewed from the damp and humidity.
Under these conditions, it’s obviously impossible to air out bedding. When one detainee leaves, the bedding he leaves behind will get assigned to a new arrival. Many quilts never lose their musty and mildewed odor. I’ve heard of some detention facilities where they only close the door to the outside courtyard at night, which is a slightly more humane way of doing things. When I got to Guangzhou No. 1, for some unknown reason the officer who admitted me made a point of giving me the filthiest and most ratty quilt available. Later, I got a newer one from a detainee who was on his way out, and I’m still using that today.
At Guangzhou No. 1, twice a day (excluding holidays) a nurse will distribute medication to detainees who are sick or who suffer from chronic illnesses. Each year, BDDC holds more than 5,000 detainees—several times more than Guangzhou No. 1. During the month I was at BDDC, I never saw any medical care like we have here.
When I got to the detention center, I increased my physical exercise and I could clearly feel my health improving a bit. But I catch colds far more frequently here than I did on the outside. I think that’s obviously a result of the terrible sanitary conditions and nutrition here. We have to bathe with cold water, even in the fall and winter, which is another reason many people get sick.
Generally, the 500 yuan each person can spend each month to purchase items goes to the purchase of daily items (underwear and a limited selection of supplementary foods). This is based on a provision in the Detention Center Regulations that was set many years ago (in 1990). If the food provided by the detention centers didn’t leave detainees feeling hungry, this monthly amount would be sufficient even with today’s prices. Goods are typically bought in group purchases twice a month, with detainees using an order form provided by the detention center to mark down what they want and the desired quantities. I’ve also heard of detention centers where they offer detainees a variety of meals, turning the jail into a kind of restaurant and general store.
Luckily, I’ve never been sick enough to require being hospitalized. Based on what I’ve heard from others who have, the detainee wing at the Guangzhou People’s Armed Police (PAP) Hospital has earned the nickname “Police Beatings Hospital.” What sick people need is treatment and care, but most people’s memory of that place is that it’s even worse than jail itself. Patients are assigned only one set of clothes, and if they want to launder them they have go around naked in the meantime. Patients wear leg shackles the whole time, and quite often some will get shackled to their beds because of some trivial matter and left lying in their own excrement while no one bothers with them.
Security guards beat patients for no reason, and the food is no better than in the detention centers. In the case of Guangzhou No. 1, the food is probably even worse and they don’t allow patients to buy extra food while in the hospital. The medical staff is very curt and brutish. One cellmate I had spent nearly a year in the hospital, off and on, and witnessed many cases of gauze being left in patients’ bodies after an operation. It got to the point where he finally became afraid to admit that he was sick for fear of being sent to the PAP Hospital. It’s said that ill detainees from detention centers all over the province get sent there and that there are more than 500 people being held in the detainee wing.
VI. Disciplinary measures, relief procedures, and sham oversight provisions
Even though the prison uses fixed shackling and other brutal disciplinary measures to punish detainees, I’ve never seen the detention facility carry out any legal procedure in connection with this.
When the officers take such measures, detainees have no chance to defend themselves. What the officers are acting out here is a real-life legal farce. On the surface, the resident procuratorate office is supposed to carry out oversight of the detention centers, but in the two years I’ve been in detention I’ve only seen a single detainee have a meeting with a resident procuratorate official on official business. I’ve never seen anything in writing about how to contact the procuratorate. How can he carry out his duties of oversight of the legal system and protection of human rights?
VII. Detainees with special privileges
In February of this year, as I was being transferred from Cell Unit 5 to Cell Unit 3, I discovered that a single person was being held all by himself in Cell No. 1301. That man (who people said was a former vice governor of Hainan Province) was clearly living in a newly renovated cell that was just like a hotel. He enjoyed quite a few different kinds of special treatment. His cell was kept open for long periods at a time to prevent him from feeling as if he were being held in a confined space. (It was precisely for this reason that we were able to see a bit of the conditions under which he was being held.) They say he receives the same meals that the guards do.
Cell No. 1302, right next door, is also a special-treatment cell where a dozen or so men are held under much lower security. According to other detainees with good sources of information, those detainees also enjoy much better food than ordinary prisoners—each of them might get a raw cucumber or an extra egg each day. Privileged detainees like these are able to enjoy a standard of living far superior to that offered to ordinary prisoners. This is a microcosm of the same distribution gap that exists between ordinary people and the privileged Communist Party elite outside prison.
Many detainees rely on cultivating “connections” to improve their treatment. They’ll get new bedding and clothing. They’ll be given drier and more airy places to sleep. They won’t have to take overnight shifts or do manual piece work. Instead they’ll get light tasks to do or oversee the piece work done by other detainees. Some are even given the job of assigning daily chores among the other detainees, or what is known as being the “jail boss.”
It’s the detention center officers who hand out these assignments. I once heard of a person who spent several thousand yuan each month in an unsuccessful attempt to bribe the guards to give him the position of “jail boss.” Whether ordinary prisoners are treated with basic humanity depends entirely on personal favors from a few detention center guards. As long as the authorities continue to closely monitor and restrict detainees from meeting or corresponding with relatives and lawyers, then it’s wishful thinking for them to harbor any hopes of wiping out this kind of corruption.
I haven’t yet been transferred to prison, where individuals who’ve already been convicted are incarcerated. So, I don’t have much to say here about conditions in China’s prisons. But based on the many cases about which I’ve seen and heard, there are many similarities between prisons and detention centers.
Some might think that what I’ve reported here is based solely on my own personal experience and decide that it’s not a representative enough sample. What I’ve discussed here is mainly based on my personal experience, but for the past two years I’ve been lived 24 hours a day with a total of over 200 other detainees of all types. Many among them have spent time in other detention centers and prisons at different times and in different places. Of what they’ve told me, I’ve only included details that I have been able to corroborate.
I don’t expect the Communist authorities to undertake any reform as a result of this report, but I hope that I myself won’t become numb to these re-occurring atrocities and sink into a kind of degradation. For me, then, this is a way to seek my own salvation.
All men and women of the world who are willing to speak out for justice and humanity: Please listen to what I’ve said here and speak up on behalf of those of us who have already lost our ability to speak for ourselves. I pray that you will be blessed by God’s righteousness!
April 26, 2016
Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) is a Guangzhou-based lawyer and human rights defender. He was disbarred in 2005 as retaliation for his labor rights work and, in particular, for his role in attempting to remove corrupt officials in Taishi Village, Guangdong. Since 2006 he has been a proponent of a form of non-violent civil disobedience that encourages ordinary citizens to fight for their civil and political rights. He was detained in May 2014, and on January 29, 2016, sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” More writing and translations can be found on the Human Rights in China website.
To Obama – Why China Does Not Have a Nelson Mandela, by Yaxue Cao, September, 2015.
André Gattonlin, Marie Holzman, and Noël Mamère, July 18, 2016
This is a translation of Donnons le prix Sakharov à un intellectuel ouïghour published in the French newspaper Libération on July 14, 2016. – The Editors
The Sakharov Prize is awarded every year in October, to honor individuals or organizations who have dedicated their lives to defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The award, which was created in 1985 by the French MP Jean-François Deniau, may well be awarded this year to an Uighur intellectual who was sentenced in 2014 to life in prison. It turns out that this professor from Minzu University (University for Nationalities) in Beijing had been discovered in 2008 by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was invited to spend a week in France under a program called “Personalities of the Future.” This project gave civil society actors under 35 years of age from around the world the opportunity to meet personalities of their choice in order to sharpen their knowledge of the workings of our country.
Since these “Personalities of the Future” were also chosen for their moral qualities, it is not surprising that many of them, including Ilham Tohti, chose to meet with organizations made up of human rights defenders, or representatives from the legal world or from trade unions. In other words, France invited people who might carry far and wide the universal values for which our country is proud to be a beacon.
This is what Ilham Tohti has tried to do. Having received an excellent education in Uighur as well as in Chinese, he had the rare privilege of being able to become a university professor in Beijing and to provide education in economics and geopolitics. His pedagogical gifts, the strength of his arguments and the breadth of his views quickly made him a charismatic teacher whose courses, taught in Chinese, were avidly followed by his Uighur students as well as by Han, Mongolian, and Tibetan students, among others. He expanded his circle by creating a site, Uighur Online, from which he conveyed constructive suggestions aimed at those active in China’s political and economic life, with the purpose of improving the situation in Xinjiang, the far west Chinese province, which is the cradle of the Uighur ethnic group and which joins together eight million people in the interior of China.
However, since September 11, 2001, and the subsequent worldwide struggle against terrorism, the Uighurs have become a favorite target of the Chinese government which accuses them of all evils: fundamentalism, Islamism, and terrorism. The new anti-terrorism law, passed on December 27, 2015, has simply added one more layer to this. While the counter-productive and repressive strategies regarding ethnic groups—such as Tibetans and Uighurs—have so far raised tensions between Han and non-Han ethnic groups, via torture, imprisonment, extrajudicial killings and the heavy-handed policing of even the most peaceful demonstrations supporting religious or cultural identity, the Chinese government has found nothing better to do than to sentence to life imprisonment, under the pretext of “separatism,” one of the only Uighur intellectuals who had attempted, by any means, to find common ground for cooperation between Uighurs and Hans.
46 years old, Ilham Tohti has already received several awards, including the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from the PEN American Center in 2014. World leaders have protested his conviction as unfair. It is time for French public opinion to take up his case: by dint of discussing the harm done by ISIS or Boko Haram, we’ve come to forget that certain Muslim citizens could make a difference and bring peace to a world torn by hatred and xenophobia. Ilham Tohti is certainly one among them. His place is not in the No. 1 Detention Center in Urumqi in Xinjiang. The Sakharov Prize would be both a tribute and a message of hope sent to an innocent victim of the ruthless dictatorship of Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is up to the European Deputies to rouse themselves on his behalf!
André Gattonlin is a French senator. Marie Holzman is the President of Solidarité Chine. Noël Mamère is a deputy of the National Assembly. This op-ed was translated from the French by Elliot Sperling, Professor Emeritus of Eurasian Studies, Indiana University.
Essential readings about Ilham Tohti:
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen by Ilham Tohti, 2011.
Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (downloadable PDF) by Ilham Tohti, 2011-2013.
Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti, November, 2013.
Ilham Tohti, a 30-minute Documentary , October, 2015.
A Short Introduction to Ilham Tohti, 2016 (downloadable PDF)
Making the Case for Nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize – My Remarks at the European Parliament
Yaxue Cao, May 31, 2016
On May 25, a conference titled “Does China Want Real Ethnic Harmony? Professor Ilham Tohti in Perspective” was held in the European Parliament in Brussels. It was sponsored by MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; MEP Barbara Lochbihler, with the Greens/European Free Alliance and the vice-chair of Subcommittee on Human Rights of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, gave the closing remarks. Both members displayed a sound grasp of the plight of Uighurs and Ilham Tohti’s case, and explained how the Sakharov Prize should be seen as a vehicle of change. I spoke along with five other panelists from academia and human rights groups in Europe and the US, and together we made the case for nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. My remarks focus on Ilham Tohti’s ideals and work. — Yaxue Cao
I’m not always acutely aware of identity as a Han Chinese, but this is one of those few occasions when I am. I am deeply honored to be here, speaking about Ilham Tohti. You will see why.
The Chinese government has a long standing ethnic policy since the beginning of the founding of the People’s Republic: it selects the brightest ethnic youth, whether Tibetans, Uighurs or from other ethnic groups, and brings them to study and attend colleges in Beijing or other cities in interior China. With better education, they eventually become the elites of their ethnic groups; many become party cadres, others become writers, and others university faculty or successful businessmen.
Ilham Tohti was one of the Uighur elite educated in interior China, as was his father before him. So were his two brothers. He was born in 1969 and grew up in a government compound where Han and Uighur party cadres and their families lived. He was selected to study in Beijing when he was 16. He studied economics and eventually became a professor at Minzu University in Beijing. He is an expert in Xinjiang studies and Central Asia studies, including geopolitics, culture, economic development, and religion. In recent years, he has focused his research on the Uighurs’ economic, religious and political rights, and the increasingly difficult relationship with Han Chinese who have migrated in large numbers to Xinjiang over the last six decades. He is interested in the technicality of governing a multi-ethnic society where groups co-exist peacefully, enjoying equal rights, while preserving their cultural identity. He studied cases of successes and failures in many countries, including in Europe. Not surprisingly, through his research, he saw that his ideals of peaceful ethnic coexistence and good governance would require values and institutions that are rejected by the Chinese government.
His research has inevitably led to criticism of Chinese government’s ethnic policies. In his writings, he analyzed problems in Xinjiang and made policy recommendations that, as far as we can see, have fallen on deaf ears.
Ilham Tohti evoked the ire of the government from the very beginning of his teaching career. In 1994 he was tracked down and threatened by domestic security police (political police, in essence) for the first time, for questioning in a paper he had written the truthfulness of some official data. Over the years he has been alternately barred from publishing and teaching, from traveling to Xinjiang, and from traveling overseas. He was videotaped when he taught, and the government sent minders to sit in his classes. He had been subjected to short detentions and house arrest. In January 15, 2014, he was arrested, and in September, 2014, sentenced to life in prison. Ilham was charged with separatism despite his well-known insistence on peaceful ethnic coexistence.
Long before the Chinese government embarked on the so-called One Road One Belt strategic development blueprint that seeks westward economic expansion along the old Silk Road through Xinjiang, Central Asia and onto Europe, Ilham Tohti believed that China can and should play a more active and effective role in Central Asia, and that Uighurs can take part in that process and contribute to it significantly, because of their cultural affinity with the people of Central Asia.
In his widely-read 2009 essay “Farewell, Ilham,” Ilham’s long-time friend, Chinese writer Huang Zhangjin wrote, “Ilham believes that, if China is a free and democratic country and Xinjiang is a region with true autonomy, the Uighurs will be very proud of being part of China, that China will have strong soft power in Central Asia, and that the Uighurs will become the natural force in expanding China’s influence in the culture and economy in Central Asia, because of their linguistic advantages.” According to Huang, Ilham had planned to propose this national development strategy to leaders. “The situation will be so different even if the Uighurs are treated with some equality,” Ilham Tohti told his Han friend.
But the reality is, ethnic tension between Uighurs and the government, and between Uighurs and Han Chinese, has been deteriorating steadily since the late 1990s. What’s worse, in addition to the intrinsic problems he pointed out, China has seized on the international campaign against terrorism and exploited it through disinformation and distortion for the brutal suppression of the cultural and religious identity of Uighurs. Uighurs have lived in unprecedented fear: they have been subjected to arbitrary detention; they are given long imprisonment for everyday scuffles, or any number of minor offenses; discrimination against them is written in policy announcement across China. Any violent events are quickly labeled terrorist attacks, while similar acts by Han Chinese are described in non-politicized terms.
It was against this backdrop that Ilham Tohti, the Uighurs’ foremost public intellectual, emerged, answering a call of duty.
Now, let’s pause to consider again: 1) Ilham is an elite Uighur with advanced education and research expertise about his homeland and his people; 2) He speaks fluent Chinese and teaches and lives in Beijing, China’s political and economic center; 3) He knows like the back of his hand the views of Han Chinese and the Chinese government’s approach to his people; and 4) As an intellectual, regardless of his ethnicity and religion, he is firmly in the camp of the liberal intelligentsia in China who embrace freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. How many Uighurs inside China are like Ilham Tohti? Very few. So he felt he had a responsibility to his people, and for peace and understanding between Uighurs and Chinese.
Ilham wrote in his autobiographical essay “My Ideals and the Career Path I have Chosen” in 2011, “I know very well that there are not many people from my ethnic group like me who have enjoyed quality education and have had opportunities and experiences. Similarly, few people in China possess the same advantages as I do with regard to Xinjiang issues and Central Asian issues. The challenges facing Chinese society are so arduous that I can’t rightly dismiss my responsibility.” He understands perfectly that, to answer this call of duty, “not only knowledge and training, but above all, courage” will be required.
Part of his answer to this call of duty was to set up the website Uighur Biz in 2006. It was a Chinese-language website that posted news, commentaries, and discussions about what was happening in Xinjiang and to Uighurs and other ethnic groups that the mainstream Han Chinese seldom cared about and hardly knew. The idea was to facilitate access to information and mutual understanding. Ilham Tohti believes in the power of communication. He said that confronting differences is not dangerous, but silent suspicion and hatred are. The site was repeatedly hacked or ordered to shut down. At around the time of his arrest, it had ceased permanently.
Over the years, Ilham Tohti repeatedly emphasized that he is a scholar, not a political figure, and that he serves his people’s interest best as a scholar rather than a political symbol. Yet today he is the No. 1 political prisoner in China in that he is the only person since China’s opening up more than three decades ago who has been sentenced to life in prison for his ideas and expression. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for drafting and spreading Charter 08, a blueprint for democratic transformation in China. Ilham Tohti’s recommendations to the Chinese government are sound, and they are also measured and realistic. He is punished so much more severely simply because he is a Uighur.
Recently, around the world, there has been much looking back at the Cultural Revolution among journalists, academics and China watchers, given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Mao Zedong’s notorious political campaign that laid China to ruins. Ilham Tohti’s father, like hundreds and millions of Chinese, died during the Cultural Revolution at the age of 28 when Ilham Tohti was two years old and his younger brother was eleven months. Fifty years later, Ilham Tohti is serving a life sentence for speaking out for his people.
In a nutshell, this is how much China has changed politically over the last fifty years and how bad ethnic tensions have become.
Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen, April 2014.
Ilham Tohti, a Documentary, 32 minutes.
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.