(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately release all remaining imprisoned students of the Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, Human Rights Watch said today. A government list of prisoners leaked in December 2021 indicates that six of the seven students on the list were sentenced in December 2014 to between three-and-a-half and eight years in prison. Although they would have completed their sentences, it is unclear whether they have been released.
Ilham Tohti, 52, who began writing about social problems facing Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region in 1994, was arrested in January 2014 on charges of “separatism” and sentenced to life in prison after a trial that was riddled with due process violations.
“China’s severe repression in Xinjiang raises serious concerns that the seven students are still under some form of detention or movement restrictions,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government should immediately free them and restore their rights.”
The trials of Ilham Tohti and the students were the same year that the Chinese government opened its abusive “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” against the 11 million Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The authorities ramped up the campaign in late 2016 and arbitrarily detained over a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in “political education” camps, formal detention centers, and prisons.
Human Rights Watch, Xinjiang Victims Database, and other organizations have previously documented cases in which individuals who were supposed to be released from prison during the Strike Hard Campaign were sent soon after release or immediately to political education camps or prisons instead.
The seven prisoners, who were Ilham Tohti’s students at the Central Nationalities University of China or volunteers for his website Uyghurbiz.net, are Abduqeyum Ablimit, Perhat Halmurat, Akbar (or Ekbar) Imin, Mutellip Imin, Shohret Nijat, Atikem Rozi, and Luo Yuwei. According to the leaked list, five of the seven were convicted of “separatism” on December 7, 2014:
- Abduqeyum Ablimit (阿卜杜凯尤木·阿卜力米提), born in 1990, was sentenced to three years and six months. He was held in Xinjiang No. 6 Prison (also known as Xinshoufan Prison) in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital, and his sentence should have ended on July 17, 2017.
- Perhat Halmurat (帕哈提·哈力木拉提), born in 1988, was sentenced to eight years and held in Turpan Prison. His sentence should have ended on January 14, 2022.
- Akbar (or Ekber) Imin (阿可拜尔·依明), born in 1981, was sentenced to five years and held in Xinjiang No. 3 Prison in Urumqi. His sentence should have ended on January 14, 2019.
- Mutellip Imin (穆塔力浦·伊明), born in 1988, was sentenced to seven years in prison. He was held in Xinjiang No. 1 Prison. His sentence should have ended on January 14, 2021.
- Shohret Nijat (肖克来提·尼加提), born in 1987, was sentenced to seven years in prison. He was held in Turpan Prison. His sentence should have ended on January 14, 2021.
The only woman of the group, Atikem Rozi (阿提克木·如孜), born in 1991, was sentenced to four years in prison in a separate hearing on December 22, 2014, also for “separatism.” She was held in Xinjiang Women’s Prison, and her sentence should have ended on January 16, 2018. A short clip of her – speaking in Uyghur and dressed in prison uniform – appeared briefly in an April 2021 Chinese government propaganda film, allegedly showing that Uyghurs are susceptible to “radical separatist thoughts.” That clip was the only recent information the authorities had released on the students since 2014.
The leaked list has no information on Luo Yuwei (罗玉伟), the only non-Uyghur member of the group, who was also tried in December 2014.
The list provides the most detailed information on the students since late 2014, when they were tried and sentenced in secret. At the time, Ilham Tohti’s lawyers, Liu Xiaoyuan and Li Fangping, told the media that the students were convicted on a charge of separatism and were given between three and eight years in prison. But they had no details on the individual sentencing of each student. Liu and Li had obtained this information from the students’ legal counsel.
The Chinese government has never released the students’ sentencing information. A search for the students’ names on the Supreme People’s Court verdict database returned no results.
The leaked list – created in August 2015 – contains the names, genders, ethnicities, dates of birth, ID numbers, addresses, crimes, sentencing dates, and other details of over 18,000 Uyghurs in Xinjiang convicted of political and religious crimes. The anonymous source, who said they are a “Han Chinese who is opposed to the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang,” emailed this list of 18,000 prisoners and another of 10,000 Uyghur prisoners to the Xinjiang Victims Database in December 2021.
Xinjiang Victims Database, a website documenting cases of people in Xinjiang who were detained, forcibly disappeared, or whose rights were otherwise violated since September 2018, has verified the leaked lists. The Database said details contained in the leaked list are consistent with other information it had collected. The situations of about 1,500 people on the list were already documented in the Database. Some of the personal and detention details of about 20 people matched information that had not been publicly disclosed previously.
Ilham Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, said that his family has not been given access to visit him since early 2017. The prominent scholar established Uyghurbiz.net, a Chinese-language forum, in 2006 to raise awareness about problems facing Uyghurs, and to foster dialogue between Uyghurs and the majority Han Chinese. The Chinese authorities harassed him and had him under surveillance for years, barred him from teaching, and periodically placed him under house arrest. Officials detained him at Beijing Capital International Airport in 2013 as he was travelling to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University in the United States. He was put on trial the following year.
The Chinese government has long carried out repressive policies against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Since the 1990s, it has accelerated Xinjiang’s integration into China by encouraging Han migration, developing the region’s economy, and exploiting its natural resources. These policies, imposed on Uyghurs with no consultation, marginalized them and fueled their grievances against the Chinese government. Uyghurs also face official discrimination throughout China. Rozi, one of the imprisoned students, wrote an essay saying she had been denied a Chinese passport because of her ethnicity, the Chinese state tabloid, the Global Times, reported in 2012.
The Chinese government’s mass violations against Uyghurs have escalated since the Strike Hard Campaign and amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities persecute through punishment in political education camps and lengthy imprisonment any Uyghur who is deemed a threat to state security, or whose thoughts contain what the authorities refer to as “ideological viruses.”
“Dozens of governments and United Nations human rights experts have challenged Beijing over its atrocity crimes targeting Uyghurs,” Wang said. “They should now press for information that these students have been released from prison, and if not, call for their and Ilham Tohti’s immediate release.”