Beijing refuses to distinguish between peaceful advocacy and violent unrest
PEN American Center condemns today's indictment of Ilham Tohti on charges of separatism. A Uyghur scholar and the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award recipient, Tohti has worked to promote peaceful dialogue between Uyghurs and the majority Han population in China. Tensions between the two ethnic groups have risen to new heights as restrictions on cultural freedoms in Xinjiang have expanded and pockets of individuals have responded violently. Tohti, however, has never advocated violence or the separation of Xinjiang from China. Instead, he has worked within the country's laws to promote equal rights for all of China's citizens, and to encourage exchange and understanding between different ethnic groups.
The charges against Ilham Tohti reflect the Chinese government’s refusal to distinguish between peaceful advocacy and violent unrest. By targeting Tohti based on his ideas, writings, and teachings, Beijing sends the message that advocacy for Uyghur rights is prohibited in any form. The government claims an aim to discourage violence, but the denial of peaceful means of expression risks having the exact opposite effect.
PEN is gravely concerned about Ilham Tohti's prospects for a fair trial on these baseless charges. Tohti has long expected retaliation from the Chinese government. In a statement released in July 2013, he foretold his own arrest: 'I have realized that I don’t have too many good days ahead of me and I have a feeling that the Chinese government may not have the best intentions in dealing with my situation... I am almost confident that the Chinese government is trying to get rid of me this time.'
Ilham Tohti’s right to free expression is protected under international human rights law as well as Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution. PEN reiterates our call to Chinese authorities to immediately drop all charges against him and release him.