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Ilham Tohti

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Ilham Tohti | 伊力哈木

Ilham Tohti (b. 1969) is a Uyghur economist and intellectual. He was a professor at Minzu University of China until 2014, when he was arrested on separatism charges and later sentenced for life imprisonment.

Ilham Tohti was born in Artush, Xinjiang. He went to Northeast Normal University and Minzu University of China (MUC), obtaining a master’s degree in economics. He also studied abroad in Japan and South Korea. In 2006, when he was teaching at MUC, Ilham Tohti founded Uyghur Online, a website that published articles on social issues in Chinese and Uyghur. Chinese authorities accused the website of inciting extremism in the Uyghur community, and ordered it shut down in mid-2008.

Ilham Tohti was widely known during his career as a moderate voice facilitating dialogue between Uyghur and Han people. He advocated for a stricter implementation of China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, believing that it would have granted more regional autonomy to Xinjiang and more job opportunities for Uyghur people. His sober and moderate positions were recognized by many in the Han and Uyghur communities alike. Huang Zhangjin, a friend of his and a well-known Han journalist and editor, wrote a long essay in 2009, documenting Ilham Tohti’s views on ethnic issues in China. In the essay titled “Goodbye, Ilham,” which CDT translated the essay in full, Huang wrote:

Ilham believed that he had the best interest of the central government and the Party in mind. He was opposed to Xinjiang independence. He constantly worried about intense minzu conflicts breaking out in Xinjiang—a real possibility in his mind. [...] Ilham insisted that Uyghur’s pursuit of equality and freedom must not be separated from Han people’s advancement of freedom and democracy. The two must be closely integrated. The situation of the Uyghurs was a result of the lack of democracy and freedom in China as a whole. Uyghurs can gain freedom and democracy only if Han people can also achieve them.[Source]

Ilham Tohti was detained in 2009 following the deadly ethnic conflicts in Urumqi, Xinjiang. The authorities released him a few weeks later after international condemnation. In January 2014, he was again arrested on separatism charges. In September 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The harsh sentence came as shocking for some because of his moderate position. Some also noted that his sober tone might be the precise reason why the Chinese government chose to make an example of him. Shortly after his trial, Chinese scholar Wang Lixiong noted that the authorities “don’t want moderate Uyghurs. Because if you have moderate Uyghurs, why aren’t you talking to them?” Others saw his willingness to openly criticize the Party’s ethnic policies as the primary reason for his fate.

Ilham Tohti has received various international recognitions including Václav Havel Human Rights Prize and the Sakharov Prize. A number of people and organizations have been advocating for his release, including his daughter Jewher Ilham.

CDT Coverage