It was supposed to be an adventure. It was Feb. 2, 2013, and Ilham Tohti, a Beijing-based professor and writer, and his 18-year-old daughter, Jewher Ilham, were on their way from China to the United States. He was to start a year-long residency at Indiana University, she was tagging along to help him settle in. They got to the airport, checked their bags, and made their way through the gleaming terminal. But at immigration, they were stopped.
Security personnel took them to a small room where they sat for several hours. Eventually, they informed them that Ilham Tohti could not leave. Jewher, then 18, was put on a flight to Chicago. She landed in the U.S. alone, with no money and only rudimentary English. “I was so afraid,” she says.”I did not know what to do.”
So began the journey of Jewher Ilham. With the help of a family friend, she made her way safely to Indiana. But she has not seen her father since the airport. And she may never see him again.
On the morning of Sept. 23, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on charges of separatism. He is a leading advocate for the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority that has long bristled under Beijing’s rule. His brutal detention, closed-door trial and harsh sentence are yet more signs that when it comes to certain issues, the ruling Chinese Communist Party will tolerate zero dissent.
Ilham Tohti’s case comes at a time when his native Xinjiang is experiencing a rise in violence. The Chinese government says the upheaval in its far northwestern territory, home to the Uighurs and other minority groups, is the work of extremists with links to foreign terror. Though Tohti often wrote about his desire for inter-ethnic harmony, officials have linked him to the recent unrest. “Tohti encouraged fellow [Uighurs] to use violence,” reported Xinhua, a state-backed newswire. They also faulted him for “making domestic issues international.”
Rights groups say the charges are trumped-up and the conviction amounts to political scapegoating. “Ilham was only exercising his right to free expression, for which he should not be imprisoned” read a statement from China Human Rights Defenders, an NGO. “The government is trying to lay blame on him for recent violent incidents and divert attention from its own policy failures that have contributed to rising ethnic tensions.”
Jewher Ilham has always maintained her father’s innocence, and from her new base in Bloomington, Indiana, she has done what she can to clear his name. When she first arrived in the U.S., her father’s friend and colleague, Elliot Sperling, helped get her into English classes. At first, she was unable to communicate in English, and Sperling served as a round-the-clock Chinese-to-English translator. In April 2014, just over a year into Ilham’s studies, she testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. She spoke about their fateful trip to the airport, her father’s detention and torture, and the hardships faced by her brothers and stepmother back home. A month later, she accepted the PEN Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on her father’s behalf.
“I had never imagined that I would be in such a situation; I never thought that one day my father would be imprisoned in Xinjiang and I would be on the other side of the world, trying my best to speak for him,” Ilham said.
But speak she did, beautifully: “My father Ilham Tohti has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of Uyghur of Xinjiang: words, spoken, written, distributed and posted,” she said. “This is all that he has ever had at his disposal, and all he has ever needed. And this is what China finds so threatening.”
When I interviewed Jewher in August she seemed determined, but tired. She said she started each day by typing her dad’s name into Google, searching for news about his case. “I hate the feeling that I have to learn information about my father on the Internet,” Jewher said. She often gets early morning calls from journalists—appreciated but tough to balance with mid-term exams.
I did not have the heart to call this morning, the day her father was sentenced to life. But I will be thinking of her. She is young and brave, but so very far from home.
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