Life Imprisonment of Tohti Undermines Chinese Legal System
A Chinese court’s conviction on Sept. 23 of Ilham Tohti, an economics professor, on charges of “separatism” and its sentencing him to life imprisonment highlight the government’s efforts to subdue unrest in Xinjiang, the country’s far-western region that is also home to most Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group to which Tohti belongs.
In convicting Tohti of spurious charges, China’s justice system has imprisoned a scholar whose research includes viable economic and policy solutions that would help address unrest in Xinjiang. Tohti maintains he is innocent of all charges and, in a statement issued by his lawyer, Li Fangping, said he aimed only “to cry out on behalf of my people, and even more for the future of China.”
China’s future should include protection of basic human rights as enshrined in Chinese law.
Beijing should unconditionally release Tohti, and acquit him of all charges. The court’s action undermines the integrity of the Chinese legal system and further erodes the government’s legitimacy in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Authorities had detained Tohti at his home in Beijing on Jan. 15, formally arrested him on Feb. 20 without charge, then held him incommunicado for more than five months. His lawyer was then denied regular access to his client. Tohti was eventually charged with separatism. Tohti has advocated for minority rights, but there are no known links between unrest in Xinjiang and his academic or advocacy work.
Tohti has promoted a progressive economic policy to extend economic opportunity to Uighurs. He has researched economic and social conditions in the region, including the destabilizing effects of high unemployment there.
After his arrest, state-controlled media misrepresented Tohti’s research and writings in an attempt to support the charge of separatism. The government blocked access to his website and publications, and silenced public discourse by removing Tohti’s name from microblogs and search engines.
Authorities have harassed, detained or arrested some 10 students who contributed to publications and policy analysis on Tohti’s website. A student of his at Min Zhu University was detained for allegedly “revealing state secrets.” Two others were denied permission to travel abroad for study and were accused of being “politically unqualified.” Another student was charged with “attempting to flee the country” and blocked from travel when about to leave for short-term study abroad.
In fact, Tohti is a well-established scholar who peacefully promotes understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese. Tohti’s research focuses on an important tie between Uighurs and Han Chinese, which is the economy. Chinese development policy has depended on the appearance of social stability, at the expense of basic rights and freedoms of all Chinese citizens – as demonstrated by Tohti’s wrongful conviction and life imprisonment.
*Photo Credit: Pen American Center (Creative Commons).
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.