Not long before his arrest in January this year, when Ilham Tohti, a 44-year-old Uighur economics professor, was on an outing with his wife and children, three secret policemen rammed their car into his from the rear. “We’ll kill your whole family!” one of them screamed. Afterwards, Tohti wrote his will. Even if I am murdered by secret police, it said, remember, “it is not the Han Chinese who killed me, and do not place hatred between the two people, Uighur and Han”.
Tohti was put on trial for “separatism” on 17 and 18 September. The sentence was handed down four days later by the Intermediate People’s Court in Urumqi, the capital of China’s increasingly violent Xinjiang region, where Uighurs are the main ethnic group: life imprisonment for the crime of separatism.
Tohti’s troubles began in 2006 when he founded Uighurbiz, a Chinese-language website devoted to fostering understanding between the Uighur and Han people, China’s dominant ethnic group. For years, in his writing and speeches, he has repeatedly emphasised his opposition to separatism, religious extremism and terrorism. What he has focused most on is the need to implement Xinjiang’s long-promised autonomy; the need to observe the rule of law and human rights; that all ethnic groups should share fairly in the fruits of China’s development; and that discrimination based on region, ethnicity or gender must be eliminated.
He is a modest, reasonable and honest scholar and defender of human rights. When speaking about the humiliation and suffering of the Uighurs, he is anguished and anxious, but he does not hate, despair or suggest extreme approaches. Tohti is the conscience of the Uighur people.
As a result of his being targeted by the domestic security police, the successful business he ran alongside his teaching career was ruined. For years, he and his family have been subject to house arrest, typically for several months each year. He has been barred from travelling overseas for academic activities and has been abducted repeatedly, with secret police regularly beating and cursing him.
I have known Tohti for about five years and we’ve become close friends. A rendezvous with him was like carrying out a secret mission. I’d use a new phone card to contact him and remove the battery from my mobile phone when we would meet at a Uighur restaurant near his university. “No use,” he once said, pointing to the overhead fan. “Cameras are everywhere.” His home had eavesdropping devices on the ceiling, he told me, and political cadres would sit in on his classes to monitor him and his students.
While the secret police see secrets everywhere, Tohti had none. Everything he has said and written is published online or in the media. It is an absurdity that he was charged, tried and sentenced for separatism. Some of the seven students who worked with him on the Uighurbiz website and were also arrested provided testimony under duress that they know is untrue. Tohti told his lawyers that he understood; no one knows better than him the cruelty of the torture used to extract confessions, and no one knows better the importance of love and forgiveness.
Tohti was shackled during his detention and went on hunger strike for 10 days to protest. Then, for another 10 days, he was starved as punishment for rejecting food that wasn’t halal. In the television coverage of his trial, he looked gaunt and aged, all in the span of a few short months. The man in those images was not at all the ebullient, energetic person I knew.
The Chinese communist authorities, with their excessive violence, have created hostility, division and despair in Xinjiang and Tibet. Tohti has denounced violence and devoted himself to bridging the divide and promoting understanding and tolerance. He should be awarded the Nobel peace prize, not tortured and locked up in prison.
Coincidentally, on 18 September the world witnessed a referendum for independence in Scotland. Clearly, this shows that the question of whether two peoples stay together or part ways can be solved through rational debate and a democratic vote. But in China, a Uighur scholar was put on trial for simply republishing online an article that calls for ethnic self-determination. The contrast could hardly be starker.
My friend is suffering for the Uighurs, and also for China. When reason and peace are trampled underfoot, despair and hatred grow in their place. If the world turns a blind eye to it all, the grasping hand of tyranny may reach out towards its freedom too.
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