Ilham Tohti, founder of Uyghur Online and a moderate advocate for ethnic autonomy policy in China was arrested by police on January 15. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece labelled him as separatist. Many public intellectuals are arguing that his prosecution could result in an irreparable situation on ethnic reconciliation in China.
But current Chinese leaders seem to think otherwise. The CCP propaganda machine represented by Global Times claimed in a January 18 editorial that Ilham Tohti had a close connection with the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas group which has been labelled by the CCP as an extreme separatist group. The report also accused Ilham Tohti of inciting students in his class and spreading rumors and dissent through Uyghur Online, a website founded in 2006 to address ethnic conflicts in China from the Uyghur perspective. The site has been inaccessible since Ilham's arrest.
As highlighted in an online petition signed by more than 1,000 Chinese intellectuals for the release of Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur professor teaching in Beijing Minzhu University has played a significant role in ethnic reconciliation in China:
Ilham Tohit has always opposed Xinjiang independence and violence of any kind. He actively pushes for friendly communication between Uighurs and Chinese. He put his faith of solving the Xinjiang issue in the Chinese government adjusting its problematic Xinjiang policy. Because of this, he has criticized the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy, and at the same time, proposed various changes. His criticism and suggestions are all based on serious academic research. He is regarded by the intellectual community as a precious man who bridges Uighurs with Chinese, and by the local Xinjiang people as a courageous representative of Uighurs. In the future, he should be an important civic leader in solving the Xinjiang issue, and play an irreplaceable role in ethnic reconciliation.
Since the 2008 Lhasa violence to the 2009 Urumqi riots to today, the failure of China’s ethnic policy is obvious to all. The detention of Ilham Tohti demonstrates that the Chinese government is continuing its mistakes. The Communist Party’s grip on power is temporary, but the wellbeing of the Chinese people should be lasting. The Chinese Communist Party maintains present stability by sacrificing the future of the people. Every Chinese citizen has the right to hold the Communist party accountable, taking shared responsibility for the sake of the future of the country. Citizens of other countries may also pay attention to this event, because the suffering of the Uighur people is the suffering of all human beings, and China’s failure could jeopardize the entire world.
According to Ilham's wife, in an account recorded by Tibetan writer Woeser, Ilham was arrested in front of his sons and his computers were confiscated:
Probably between 3:30 and 4:00, there was knocking on Ilham’s door. Ilham opened the door and a line of Xinjiang police burst in, pushing him onto the sofa. There were a lot of police and Ilham was quickly taken away by one group of them. The eldest son was frightened and began to cry. Ilham had time to tell his son not to cry.
The police began to search everywhere throughout the home, including the closets and the children’s bedroom. Afterwards they took away the family’s four computers, three cell phones (including Guzelnor’s cell phone), portable hard drives, flash drives and writeable CDs/DVDs. They also took Ilham’s lesson plans, his student’s exams and essays, and books, etc. In addition, they carried off his small strongbox containing his official papers and bank cards.
On the same day, the dormitories of Ilham's seven students were raided and five male students were detained.
Yesterday, while Ilham was being taken away by the police, 7 Uyghur students who were studying at Central Minzu University (5 males, 2 females) were taken by the police from their individual dormitories. Their cell phones, computers and bank cards were also taken. Late that night the 2 female students were released and sent home. However there is absolutely no word about the 5 male students, just as is the case with Ilham.
Currently Ilham's family is under house arrest and cannot be reached by phone. Many believe the arrest is meant to criminalize speech. The online petition urges the Chinese authorities to release Ilham Tohti immediately, or to otherwise provide concrete evidence to prove their case and allow his lawyer and family to meet with him.