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: May 01, 2017

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Xinjiang Islamic University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

In May 2017, after being detained for about two months, Hebibulla Tohti, a Chinese-Uyghur theological scholar, was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison in apparent connection with his scholarly activities.

Mr. Tohti completed his doctorate at al-Azhar University in Egypt in September 2015. In July 2016, he was ordered to return to Xinjiang to “register” himself with the Chinese government. When he arrived, he was detained and reportedly interrogated about three “illegal activities” he committed during his studies: “teaching religion to Uyghur students in Egypt without the permission of Chinese authorities, attending a religious conference in Saudi Arabia in 2015 without the permission of Chinese authorities, and writing about the distinct cultural achievements of the Uyghur in his dissertation.”

Mr. Tohti was released from detention in January 2017 and accepted a position at Xinjiang Islamic University. However, he was again detained in March 2017, and convicted and sentenced in May on charges that remain undisclosed.

Since January 2017, authorities in Xinjiang have reportedly intensified a crackdown on Uyghur students and scholars studying abroad, ordering students to return to China, and in some cases reportedly holding students’ family members hostage to force their compliance with the order. 

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution and imprisonment of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of academic freedom — 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 academic freedom, so long as this is exercised peacefully and responsibly. State officials have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of due process, fair trial, and academic freedom.