PEN International is seriously concerned for the well-being of Uyghur writer, academic and Uyghur PEN member, Ilham Tohti, who was formally charged with “splittism” on 20 February 2014, amid a crackdown on Chinese Uyghurs critical of the government. His wife received formal notification of the charges on 25 February. Dozens of writers have joined American PEN in calling for his release.
As writers and artists, we join PEN American Center today in protesting the arrest of our colleague, Uighur writer and scholar Ilham Tohti, who is being charged with separatism for the peaceful expression of his views on human rights. Mr Tohti, winner of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, has been working peacefully to build bridges between Han Chinese and the Uighur people through his writing. His fate, now in the hands of the Chinese government, has profound implications for China’s future. We urge President Xi Jinping to respect Mr Tohti’s right to free expression by releasing him and dropping all charges against him immediately.
On 15 January 2014 authorities in Beijing arrested Mr Tohti at his home in front of his two young sons, who were forced to watch as dozens of officers raided their home. He was then effectively disappeared for over a month. Only on February 25 2014, did his wife, Guzaili Nu’er, receive formal notification that Mr Tohti was being held in a detention center thousands of miles away in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and was being charged with separatism, a particularly serious offence. He has been refused access to his lawyer. We understand that he could face life imprisonment or even the death penalty if convicted on this baseless charge. We are particularly concerned that authorities are using Mr Tohti’s website, Uighur Online, as a pretence for his persecution. Mr Tohti founded Uighur Online with the express purpose of promoting understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and he has never advocated violence or promoted a political agenda. Instead, his website has served as a critically important counterpoint to the aggressive measures that Xi Jinping’s administration has imposed against the Uighur people in the name of stability. Without dialogue, there can be no stability.
Human rights are of concern to all peoples regardless of frontiers, and freedom of expression is a fundamental human right recognised both under international law, and by the Chinese Constitution. Ilham Tohti has done nothing more than exercise the rights guaranteed to him by his country’s own laws.
Indeed, respecting and protecting human rights is not a detriment to any state, but rather a sign of its strength. The Chinese government has stated that creating a harmonious and stable society is its goal. To do so, the country must allow writers, artists, intellectuals, and all its citizens to speak their minds freely and interact with each other and with the world through whatever platform they choose.
Releasing Ilham Tohti and other writers imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression, including Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, would show the world that China is a strong world power that accepts dissent as a crucial part of a healthy society. We know the Chinese people are ready to take this step. We hope their government is as well.
Sergio de la Pava