On June 12, 2019, it was reported that Nurmuhammad Tohti, a professor at Hotan Teachers College and renowned Uyghur writer, died following his detention at a so-called “re-education camp” in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Tohti was a scholar of mathematics and a writer affiliated with the Writers Association of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He reportedly began teaching at Hotan Teachers College shortly after completing his studies in mathematics at Xinjiang University in 1977. Tohti also reportedly served as the secretary of the Communist Party Committee of Hotan City before beginning a literary career in the 1980s. Tohti is reportedly well-known for his stories, journalistic pieces, and a memoir published in Uyghur language.
Tohti’s detention occurred against the backdrop of an apparent campaign by Chinese authorities to detain large numbers of ethnic minorities in the region, including many prominent Uyghur, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh intellectuals, scholars, and students. Human rights groups estimate that as many as one million members of these communities have been detained at so-called “re-education camps.” Reports indicate that detainees at such camps have been subjected to psychological and physical torture and have not been provided access to family or legal counsel.
Few details about Tohti’s detention and death are available. Sources indicate that Tohti was detained by authorities and taken to a “re-education camp” in late 2018. There is no public information available suggesting that he had been charged with a crime. Family members have reported that Tohti suffered from heart conditions and diabetes. One source has alleged that Tohti suffered a heart attack shortly after being taken to the “re-education camp,” and that prison authorities neglected to provide him with proper medical treatment.
Family members in Canada have also reportedly stated that they are not sure whether Tohti died at the camp or whether he died after being returned to his home by state authorities.
Scholars at Risk is gravely concerned about the death of a scholar following his detention at a so-called “re-education camp.” SAR offers its condolences to the victim’s family, colleagues, and friends, and urges state authorities to clarify the circumstances of the scholar’s death, and otherwise ensure a prompt, independent, and transparent investigation. SAR is also concerned about the arbitrary detention of a scholar as part of sweeping measures by state authorities to restrict the right to academic freedom, freedom of religion, and freedom of association — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from interfering with such conduct, so long as it is carried out peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such conduct undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.