Who is Ilham Tohti?

Ilham Tohti (Uighur: ئىلھام توختى‎, ULY: Ilham Toxti; Chinese:伊力哈木•土赫提; pinyin: Yīlìhāmù•Tǔhètí) (b. October 25, 1969) is an ethnic-Uighur Chinese economist based in Beijing. He is known for his research on Uighur-Han relations and is a vocal advocate for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China, and was the host of Uighur Online, a website that discusses Uighur issues. Tohti was detained shortly after the July 2009 Ürümqi riots by the authorities because of his criticism of the Chinese government’s policies toward Uighurs in Xinjiang. He was later released.


Tohti was born in Artux, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on October 25, 1969,[1] the son of Mahmud Tiernan Tohti (b. January 25, 1937 in Artux, Xinjiang) and Burhanduxt Meryem Ehlin Tohti (b. October 11, 1941 in Bole, Xinjiang). He graduated from the Northeast Normal University and the Economics School at what was then called the Central Nationalities University, now named Minzu University of China, in Beijing.[1]

In 2006 Tohti founded a website called, Uighur Online, which published articles in Chinese and Uighur in order to promote a greater understanding between Han Chinese and ethnic Uighurs.[1][2] Radio Free Asia called his blog “a moderate, intellectual Web site addressing social issues.”[1] In mid-2008 authorities shut down the website.[2] On several occasions authorities have closed the site.[1] In March 2009 in an interview with Radio Free Asia Tohti criticized the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang.[2] He specifically criticized the policy of encouraging Han Chinese migrants to relocated to Xinjiang, claiming that it exacerbated the unemployment problem among ethnic Uighurs in the province.[2] Tohti claimed that while doing research for the Chinese government in the 1990s, he discovered that in Xinjiang there were 1.5 million unemployed workers, out of a population of less than 20 million.[3] In addition, he singled out the governor of Xinjiang, Nur Bekri, for criticism, calling him “unqualified” and stating that “I don’t know how he became governor of Xinjiang, and I don’t recognize him as a qualified governor.”[2] Tohti also called for the full implementation of China’s 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law.[1]

That same month, Tohti was detained by authorities and repeatedly interrogated.[1] He said that during the interrogations authorities accused him of separatism.[1] In a May 2009 interview with Radio Free Asia’s Uighur service Tohti stated that “…in terms of freedom and democracy, Xinjiang’s situation is the worst of the worst, compared with other regions of China. What I have encountered at this time is typical. My Web site was shut down without notice. I was interrogated many times and threatened. I am a legal Beijing resident, and by law I should not be interrogated by Xinjiang police officials, but it has happened. This shows how long the local authorities’ reach is. They accused me of separatism … But is demanding implementation of the autonomy law separatism?”

Detention and release

On July 5, 2009 ethnic rioting took place between ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The government reported that more than 150 people were killed during the clashes.[1] On July 6 Uighur Online was cited in a speech by Governor Bekri as a catalyst for the violence because it had helped instigate the rioting by spreading rumors.[1][3] On July 6 Tohti told Radio Free Asia’s Cantonese service that he had gathered information about the riots but that he would not release it because the timing was too sensitive.[1][4] On July 7 Tohti reported that police had been watching his home and had called him.[1] Tohti’s last blog entry published on July 7, and now blocked in China, read:

As the editor of Uighur Online, I want only to tell Nur Bekri, ‘You are right, everything you say is right, because you will decide everything. I have already offended too many powerful people, including yourself and others whom I don’t want to and don’t dare to offend. But right or wrong, there will be justice. I always tell myself [to be] cool and calm and make rational analyses. Going to court to resolve disputes is the fairest course of action in a lawful society. I have my own lawyer. When my trial comes up, don’t appoint a lawyer for me. I will refuse any court-appointed lawyer. Even if we say that Uighur Online and outsiders stirred thing up—stirred what up? People can think for themselves. If everything were working so well, why did so many people suddenly come out and riot? I think after this event the central government and the local government should give this some thought.[1]

On July 8, 2009, Radio Free Asia reported that Tohti’s whereabouts were unknown after he had been summoned from his home in Beijing.[1] On July 14, 2009, international news agencies reported that Chinese author Wang Lixiong and his wife Woeser, a noted Tibetan activist, had started an on-line petition calling for Tohti’s release.[4][5] The text of the petition stated that “Professor Ilham is a Uighur intellectual who is well known for his commitment to creating a bridge of inter-ethnic friendship and to resolving conflict. He should not be treated as a criminal.”[6] Within a day the petition had attracted more than 250 signatories, many of them Han Chinese and members of Chinese ethnic minority groups,[4] including Ran Yunfei, a well-known magazine editor and blogger who is of Monguor ethnicity.[3] On July 12 Chinese journalist Huang Zhangjin (黄章晋) wrote a blog entitled “Good-Bye Ilham” that condemned Tohti’s detention.[7] On the same day Wang and Woeser started their petition, PEN American Center issued an appeal to Chinese President Hu Jintao “to express serious concern regarding the detention of Uighur writer, academic, and PEN member Ilham Tohti.”[8] On July 20 Amnesty International issued an urgent appeal calling for Tohti’s release.[9] On August 7 Reporters Without Borders released a report stating that the organization was very worried by the absence of information on Tohti.[10]

Tohti was released from detention on August 23. He has since been released.[11] The international press reported that the release of Tohti and two other Chinese dissidents, Xu Zhiyong and Zhuang Lu, was due in part to pressure on Beijing from the administration of American President Barack Obama.[12][13] After his release Tohti gave a telephone interview to Radio Free Asia.[14][15] In this interview Tohti revealed that he had been confined to his home and a hotel and that he had been in the constant companionship of several police officers.[14][15] While he noted that the police had been “courteous” and “civilized”, he criticized his detention as “illegal” because he had not been charged with any wrongdoing.[14][15] He stated that after his release from detention the police warned him against speaking out against the government’s handling of riots in Xinjiang or else he could “soon be sentenced—be sentenced to death, be ‘dealt with’.”[14][15]

In a further phone interview in February 2011, Tohti stated that a travel ban aimed at preventing him from leaving Beijing had been extended to his family members; this disrupted his daughter’s plans to study in the United States. Tohti ended the interview after five minutes, stating that “Right now someone is with me. I have a lot of things to tell you, but I’m looking at his face and he is very angry.”


^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o “Outspoken Economist Presumed Detained”. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved July 12, 2009.
^ a b c d e “Uighur Scholar Calls for Jobs”. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
^ a b c Wong, Edward (July 15, 2009). “Intellectuals Call for Release of Uighur Economist”. New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2009.
^ a b c “Uighur Scholar’s Release Sought”. Radio Free Asia. 2009. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
^ “Chinese intellectuals call for release of Uighur”. Associated Press. July 14, 2009.
^ “Petition for Ilham Tohti under detention presented by Wang Lixiong”. Boxun News. 2009. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
^ Huang Zhangjin (2009). “再见,伊力哈木”. Bullogger.com. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
^ “PEN Appeal: Ilham Tohti”. PEN American Center. 2009. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
^ “Ilham Tohti”. Amnesty International. 2009. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
^ “A month without word of detained blogger Ilham Tohti”. Reporters Without Borders. 2009. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
^ Wines, Michael (23 August 2009). “Without Explanation, China Releases 3 Activists”. The New York Times. Retrieved 25 August 2009.
^ John Garnaut (August 25, 2009). “Obama behind release of Chinese activists”. Melbourne: The Age. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
^ Gady Epstein (August 24, 2009). “China’s Welcome Gift for Obama?”. Forbes. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
^ a b c d “Uighur Economist Freed, Warned”. Radio Free Asia. 2009. Retrieved August 31, 2009.
^ a b c d “RFA专访:伊力哈木•土赫提透露被软禁经历”. Radio Free Asia. 2009. Retrieved August 31, 2009.
^ “Travel Ban Extends to Family”. Radio Free Asia. 2011-02-10. Retrieved 2011-02-17.




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