Tohti has been a prominent figure in the non-violent promotion of implementing human rights, rule of law and genuine autonomy in Xinjiang, according to his lawyer.
“A criminal threatening the peace and stability” of China has been sentenced to life in prison for the apparent crimes of inciting racial hatred, promoting separatism, and preaching violent hatred. Professor of Economics at Beijing Minzu University, 44-year-old Ilham Tohti, was sentenced to life imprisonment after a 2-day sham trial on September 23 in Urumqi, the capital of the semi-autonomous Uyghur region, Xinjiang.
Tohti has been a prominent figure in the non-violent promotion of implementing human rights, rule of law and genuine autonomy in Xinjiang, according to his lawyer. He had been one of the few who was outspoken in his criticism of the Government’s repressive policies in Xinjiang, the northwest region of China, the inhabitants of which are overwhelmingly Muslim. Such policies, he argued, were doing more harm than good, generating violent resistance among the native Muslim Uyghurs.
It is clear that the escalation of violence in the region is a direct result of China’s repressive policies, which are only serving to radicalise more and more Uyghurs, despite the vast majority of them seeing a radicalised Islam as totally foreign.
In 2006, he launched a website called UighurOnline, which he used as a forum to encourage communication between the Han and the Uyghurs, as well as to try and build bridges between the two communities. The Government closed it down two years later, but are now using it as the partial reason behind his harsh sentence, declaring that he was using it to spread separatist ideas, and convince Uyghur youth to utilise violence in their calls for independence.
Calling for independence is illegal and always punished severely, especially when the offender belongs to one of China’s minority groups. “Separatism” is the go-to charge for any non-Han, be they Uyghur, Mongol or Tibetan, whenever Government policy is criticised. Ironic though, that Tohti was not an independence activist, nor a separatist; in his academic essays and on his website, he has continuously insisted that Xinjiang should remain part of China, and often made clear his disapproval of the violent tactics many Uyghurs resorted to, to show their own dissatisfaction with the state.
Tohti did however, openly criticise the State’s mounting police crackdown in Xinjiang, explaining that these punitive policies were convincing the younger and more impressionable Uyghurs that the battle was not between China and terrorists, but between China and Islam.
US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said that Tohti was “indispensable in helping to resolve the underlying causes of unrest and violence” and that silencing him will only accentuate the tensions.
His sentence has been received as deplorable by much of the international community, and has attracted great attention. Amnesty International has dubbed the whole case a “travesty of justice” and the US Government has also expressed its concern, calling for his release several times. A US spokesperson stressed the importance of the Chinese authorities “differentiating between peaceful dissent and violent extremism”, of which Tohti undoubtedly falls under the former.
Spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, Dilxat Raxit, said that China has sent a clear message, revealing the true impossibility of using the existing legal processes or reasonable proposals to change the circumstances of the Uyghurs.
Chinese newspapers report a completely different story, however, making clear their disapproval of the fact that countries have made ‘unreasonable demands’ to release Tohti, saying that this is rude interference in the domestic affairs and judicial sovereignty of China.
When the EU too, called for his immediate release, a spokesperson for the Chinese state said that Tohti’s actions would also have been considered violations of laws in Europe, and that his case has been tried fairly and publicly.
Moreover, Chinese media made no secret of its disdain at the “irritating comparison” made by Chinese writer, Wang Lixiong, who posted on Twitter that the Chinese authorities had just created the Uyghur Nelson Mandela. Chinese papers disregarded this as a ‘far-fetched analogy’, which demonstrated the critics’ incorrect belief that China has colonised Xinjiang. The comparison was labelled “an insult to Mandela and South Africa”; they assert that Mandela preached reconciliation, while Tohti preached hatred and killing.
Arguably, what made matters worse, was that the international condemnation came on the same day that America launched its attack on Islamic State terrorists. China maintains that its efforts should have been viewed as part of the world’s anti-terrorism endeavours, and Tohti should have been denounced as a criminal. Instead, they complain that Western countries will name anyone – even one who turns to extremism – a freedom fighter, so long as they stand in opposition to the Chinese Government.
Xinhua News said that as a result of Western countries’ double standards on terrorism, ‘a criminal was hailed as a hero’.
Before going to court, Tohti had told his lawyer to tell his family and people, that regardless of the verdict, he will not be angry nor seek revenge, and that they too should resist hate.
Ilham Tohti’s assets have all been seized, and he will spend at least 10 years in prison, leaving behind a wife and three children. His crime? Denouncing violence and calling for ethnic self-determination for his native Xinjiang.
The Han are the majority Chinese ethnic group, whose presence in the Xinjiang region has increased significantly over the past 40 years. This is a direct result of the central Government relocating many Han Chinese into the region, providing them with jobs and accommodation, in an attempt to increase Chinese control in the region, and weaken the concentrated Uyghur population.