On January 15, 2015, one year after Uyghur Academic Ilham Tohti’s detention in China, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) has once again called for continued pressure from all concerned parties for the scholar’s immediate release. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), the European Union (EU), and the US State Department have also released statements condemning the Xinjiang Provincial Court’s decision to sentence Tohti to a life in prison last September. Tohti taught economics at Minzu University, a school in Beijing designated for ethnic minorities in China. At the university, Tohti operated the website, Uighurbiz, which he advertised as a moderate and non-violent platform for dialogue and debate between the majority Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), China’s vast northwestern province.
The Chinese government has long been at odds with a faction of Uyghur Muslim separatists who continually push for additional autonomy within the XUAR, sometimes resorting to acts of terrorism both in Xinjiang and other parts of China. Tohti has repeatedly rejected violence and separatism; he contends that his website and teachings merely reflected his desires for better treatment for Uyghurs and others in the XUAR region. Despite reported non-radical intentions, the Chinese provincial court ruled that Tohti’s actions “incite[d] ethnic hatred” between the Han and Uyghurs and in doing so “encouraged his fellow Uyghurs to use violence.” The Xinjiang high court rejected the scholar’s appeal against the conviction last November.
Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ensures that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Articles 8, 9, and 10 of the UDHR, moreover, guarantee the right to an effective remedy and due process rights. Additionally, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) reminded the Chinese Government that the UDHR forbids the arbitrary denial of liberty and the suppression freedom of expression. Although the UDHR is not enforceable without ratification of a binding treaty or the implementation of conforming domestic legislation, China’s adherence to its principles would indicate a strong commitment to a preservation of these rights.
In a report concerning Tohti, the WGAD expressed concern that China’s criminal law legislation contained “vague, imprecise, and sweeping elements” that allow for Tohti—who was charged solely for his advocacy on behalf of Uyghurs—and other individuals to be prosecuted without rights to freedom of thought, expression, and opinion, all guaranteed by the UDHR. Various reports also indicated that after Tohti’s arrest in January 2014 that he was tortured in detention, denied food for ten days, and shackled for more than twenty days. Furthermore, during the course of his trial, government officials reportedly refused Tohti’s legal team access to evidence and did not allow the attorneys to meet with Tohti until nearly six months after his initial incarceration. Regardless of treaty ratification, China is obligated to protect Tohti from state-sanctioned or supported torture because eradication of torture is a jus cogens norm. Jus cogens norms refer to particular fundamental and overriding principles of international law from which no divergence is ever qualified. Should Tothti’s involvement with Uighurbiz or his non-violent stances on Uyghur representation have led to his imprisonment, China may also be suppressing Tohti’s right to freedom of expression.
The WGAD urged the Chinese government to take necessary steps to remedy the situation. Such steps include Tohti’s immediate release and compensation for the harm he has suffered during his detention. Additionally, the WGAD encouraged the government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998.