Jewher Ilham: A Uighur Father’s Brave Fight

In an op-ed published by the New York Times, Ilham Tohti’s daughter Jewher Ilham tells the story of her father’s devotion to defusing ethnic tension in China, a struggle that has landed the Uyghur economist and human rights advocate in detention on charges of separatism:

[…] My father, Ilham Tohti, an economist and writer, is an outspoken advocate for our people, the Uighurs —Turkic Muslims whose home has traditionally been in present-day northwest China. He’d criticized the Chinese government on his website, which has since been shut down. He’d given interviews to Western reporters after disturbances on July 5, 2009, in which scores of people died in ethnic clashes, and thousands of Uighurs were detained, in Xinjiang Province, in China’s northwest.

[…] Anyone who knows my father knows this [separatism] accusation is absurd. My father loves his country, and has never advocated violence. His website published writings in Chinese, Uighur, Tibetan and English, with the aim of helping our Han Chinese neighbors better understand China’s minority nationalities. His aim was understanding, and fairness. He is the sort of person the Chinese government should want to work with, not imprison. If he is guilty of anything, it is of speaking uncomfortable truths.

[…] I’m not scared. My father is strong, brave and, above all, honest. He protected me for 18 years. Now it is time for me to tell the truth about who he is and what he stands for, and to do my best to protect him while he sits in a jail far from home. [Source]

Jewher Ilham is now a student in the U.S., where she testified before the Congressional-Executive Committee on China last month. She will be accepting the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award today in New York on her father’s behalf. She tweets @JewherIlham.

As President Xi Jinping was voicing a staunch commitment to anti-terrorism during his first official trip to Xinjiang last week, an explosion at the Urumqi train station killed the two alleged perpetrators and a bystander, and left dozens more injured. Since the attack, President Xi, echoed by China’s state media, have demanded “decisive actions” against “terrorist attacks” by “Xinjiang separatist forces.”