CHINA: USCIRF Calls on the Release of Ilham Tohti and other Prisoners of Conscience

Sep 22, 2015


September 22, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) solemnly marks the one-year anniversary of the life sentence handed down to Chinese Uighur Muslim scholar Ilham Tohti for “separatism.”  USCIRF calls on the Chinese government to immediately and unconditionally release him and seven of his students who also were sentenced after a separate and secret trial.  

The Chinese court’s sentencing of Ilham Tohti and his students flies in the face of the protections Chinese citizens are entitled to both under the Chinese constitution and its international human rights commitments. And yet there are many other prisoners of conscience in China in addition to Tohti and his students.  We urge President Obama in his meeting with President Xi Jinping during his trip to Washington to urge their release.  The plight of these prisoners undermines China’s claim to be a country based on the rule of law, said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George.

Before his imprisonment, Professor Tohti was an economics professor in Beijing and a peaceful advocate for both Uighur rights and autonomy in Xinjiang. He also encouraged dialogue between Uighurs Muslims and Han Chinese.  He was falsely accused of separatism and fanning ethnic tensions and sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2014 after a two-day trial. Seven of his students subsequently were arrested and after a secret trial received prison terms of three to eight years. They were accused of contributing to a website Tohti ran that focused on Uighur issues. Though little information about Professor Tohti’s condition is available, his family reportedly has been denied visits to see him in prison. Little also is known about his students: Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Nijat, Mutellip Imin, Abduqeyyum Ablimit, Atikem Rozi and Akbar Imin are Uighur Muslims, and the seventh student, Luo Yuwei, is from the Yi ethnic minority.

Since 2009, the Chinese government has instituted sweeping security measures that, among other goals, have sought to weaken Uighur Muslims’ religious adherence and eradicate so-called “illegal” religious gatherings and activities. The Chinese government’s crackdown on religious expression in Xinjiang has led to the detention or deaths of hundreds and possibly thousands of Uighur Muslims as well as instability and insecurity, fueling resentment and the very extremism the government claims it is trying to quell.

The Chinese government should not treat the peaceful expression of beliefs as criminal conduct, and must end its repressive policies towards Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.  These policies include restrictions on Ramadan fasting, confiscation of unofficial Islamic publications, raiding of mosques, and detention and dismissal of “illegal” imams and religious personnel.  The Chinese government should support religious freedom and the peaceful practice and expression of one’s faith, said Chairman George.

USCIRF again recommended in 2015 that China be designated as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act for its particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The State Department has designated China as a CPC since 1999, most recently in July 2014. For more information, see the China Chapter (in English and Chinese) in USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report.  

For more information on China’s prisoners of conscience included in the Defending Freedoms Project, please click here.

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at or 202-786-0613.