Ilham Tohti (born 1969 in Artush, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) is an Uyghur economist serving a life sentence in China on separatism-related charges. He is a vocal advocate for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China, was the host of Uyghur Online, a website that discusses Uyghur issues, and is known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations. Tohti was detained shortly after the July 2009 Ürümqi riots because of his criticism of the Chinese government's policies toward Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He was later released and then jailed again in January 2014. For his work in the face of adversity he was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (2014), the Martin Ennals Award (2016), the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize (2019), and the Sakharov Prize (2019).

He graduated from the Northeast Normal University and the Economics School at what was then called the Central Nationalities University, now named Minzu University of China, in Beijing. In 2006 Tohti started the Uyghur Online website, which published articles in Chinese and Uyghur on social issues. In mid-2008 authorities shut down the website, accusing it of forging links to extremists in the Uyghur diaspora. In a March 2009 interview with Radio Free Asia, Tohti criticized the Chinese government's policy to allow migrant workers into Xinjiang Uyghur and the phenomenon of young Uyghur women moving to eastern China to find work. In addition, he criticized Xinjiang Uyghur Governor Nur Bekri for "always stress[ing] the stability and security of Xinjiang" instead of "car[ing] about Uyghurs", calling for a stricter interpretation of China's 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. That same month, Tohti was detained by authorities, accused of separatism, and interrogated. After being jailed for life in September 2014 Wang Lixiong wrote in a Twitter message that China had created in Ilham Tohti "a Uighur Mandela". The Chinese News Agency Xinhua dismissed the comparison writing that "[w]hile Mandela preached reconciliation, Ilham Tohti preaches hatred and killing."


Ilham Tohti, University Lecturer

On July 5, 2009 ethnic rioting took place between Uyghurs and Han in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The government reported that more than 150 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed during the clashes. On July 6 Uighur Online was cited in a speech by Governor Bekri as a catalyst for the violence because it had helped instigate the rioting by spreading rumors. On July 8, 2009, Radio Free Asia reported that Tohti's whereabouts were unknown after he had been summoned from his home in Beijing. The Chinese dissident Wang Lixiong and his Tibetan activist wife Woeser started an on-line petition calling for Tohti's release, which was signed by other dissidents including Ran Yunfei. PEN American Center, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders also issued appeals or statements of concern. Tohti was released from detention on August 23, along with two other Chinese dissidents, Xu Zhiyong and Zhuang Lu, after pressure on Beijing from the administration of American President Barack Obama. Tohti said that during his detention, he was confined to his home and a hotel with several police officers who did not treat him inhumanely. He stated that after his release, they warned him against criticism of the government's handling of riots, and prevented him and his family from leaving Beijing.


Ilham's daughter Jewher Ilham with Elliot Sperling at Lederman/PEN American Center, May 2014

China arrested and detained Tohti again in January 2014, and removed computers from his home. He was held at a detention center thousands of miles from Beijing in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

On April 1, 2014, Tohti was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, an American human rights award given to writers anywhere in the world who fight for freedom of expression.] According to the statement from PEN, Tohti, was "long harassed by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on the rights of China's Muslim Uyghur minority. Tohti represents a new generation of endangered writers who use the web and social media to fight oppression and broadcast to concerned parties around the globe. We hope this honor helps awaken Chinese authorities to the injustice being perpetrated and galvanizes the worldwide campaign to demand Tohti's freedom." China's foreign ministry expressed anger at the award, saying that he was a suspected criminal. After a two-day hearing before the Ürümqi People's Intermediate Court in September 2014, Tohti was found guilty of "separatism", sentenced him to life imprisonment and ordered all of Tohti's assets seized. Amnesty International asserted Tohti's legal team were never shown evidence and furthermore denied access to their client for six months, and condemned the trial as an "affront to justice". His imprisonment is criticized by a number of human rights organizations around the globe; such as Electronic Frontier Foundation.

On 24 September 2014, United States Secretary of State John Kerry criticized what he called a 'harsh' sentence, and called for Tohti's release. In September 2016 Ilham Tohti he was nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and the following month he was declared the winner of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. The Martin Ennals foundation cited Tohti for spending two decades trying "to foster dialogue and understanding" between the Han Chinese majority and members of Xinjiang’s largely Muslim Uighurs. “He has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uighur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression,” they added. In September 2019 the Council of Europe jointly awarded the 2019 Václav Havel Human Rights Prize to Ilham Tohti and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights.[27][28] Enver Can of the Ilham Tohti Initiative received the prize on his behalf. In October 2019 Ilham Tohti was awarded the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament.

    Tohti has dedicated his life to advocating for the rights of the Uyghur minority in China. Despite being a voice of moderation and reconciliation, he was sentenced to life in prison following a show trial in 2014. By awarding this prize, we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti and we call for the respect of minority rights in China.

    David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament
Sources: "Sakharov Prize: Jailed Uighur academic Ilham Tohti wins award" BBC 24 October 2019 | Wikipedia, Ilham Tohti