SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: January 15, 2014

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Central Nationalities University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

Ilham Tohti, an economics professor and advocate for the rights of the Chinese Uighur minority, was reportedly taken into custody by Chinese authorities on Wednesday, January 15. Seven of his students were also detained in the operation.

Reports indicate that police raided Professor Tohti’s family home, arrested him, and seized computers, cell phones, passports, and other documents, including Professor Tohti’s teaching materials and student essays.  A Chinese Foreign Ministry Official stated at the time that “Ilham is under suspicion of committing crimes and violating laws, and the public security organ put him in criminal detention according to law.” On February 25, Professor Tohti’s wife reportedly received a warrant for his arrest, charging him with separatist activities, charges she stated were “ridiculous.” As of this report, Chinese authorities had yet to grant Professor Tohti access to his attorney, Li Fangping.

Professor Tohti has previously been placed under house arrest by Chinese authorities, subjected to restrictions on academic travel, and interrogated by police in connection with his academic work.  Professor Tohti has also recently reported that police have harassed him, rammed his car, and threatened to kill his wife and children, in an effort to force him to stop speaking to foreign journalists.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention of a scholar and students, apparently as a result of scholarly and nonviolent expressive activity – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State officials have a responsibility not to interfere with scholars’ right to expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Imprisonment and prosecution aimed at limiting such expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally. State officials have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of due process, fair trial, free expression and freedom of association, and to ensure the well-being of criminal defendants while they are in custody.

UPDATE: Scholars at Risk understands that Professor Tohti has been formally charged with separatism, which carries a potential death penalty. Prosecutors in Xinjiang announced the news online on July 30.

Professor Tohti was reportedly held incommunicado from his January 15, 2014 arrest until late June 2014. Scholars at Risk understands that Professor Tohti has now been allowed access to legal counsel and plans to fight the charges brought against him.

UPDATE: On September 16 and 17, 2014, Professor Tohti underwent a two-day trial in the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court, which was closed to the public.  Professor Tohti’s lawyers complained that they were denied access to evidence in advance of trial and were not allowed to call defense witnesses.  Evidence presented by prosecutors reportedly included Professor Tohti’s teaching materials, as well as material taken from the Uighur Online website.  Professor Tohti reportedly maintained his innocence throughout trial, rejecting the charge of separatism, and insisting that his efforts had been to preserve ethnic unity, and to promote human rights, the rule of law, and autonomy for the Xinjiang region (home to most of China’s Uighur population).

Following trial, the court found Professor Tohti guilty of advocating independence for the region of Xinjiang “disguised as high-level autonomy.”  In addition, Professor Tohti’s lawyer announced that the court had found Professor Tohti guilty of attacking government policies related to family planning and ethnic and religious issues; expressing support for terrorists; and “internationalizing” the issue of Uighur rights by speaking to foreign journalists. In addition to his life sentence, the court ordered that all of Professor Tohti’s assets be confiscated.

On September 23, 2014, Professor Tohti was sentenced to life in prison.