‘We don’t know if he is alive’: Uighur woman speaks out on jailing of father in Xinjiang

Ilham Tohti was jailed for life, accused of advocating separatism for region in China

The last time Jewher Ilham’s family saw her father, he had lost 40 pounds and his hair had turned grey.

“He used to be a pretty chubby man and now he has nothing. And all his hair turned grey. But other than that he looked okay. He’s a very strong person, I mean a mentally strong person, or at least that is what I knew of my father. And I hope he can remain the same.”

Ilham Tohti, Jewher's father (Jewher is an Uighur, a Turkic ethnic group whom take their father's first name as their surname), is a former economics lecturer from Minzu University, Beijing.

He was jailed for life in 2014 after being accused by the Chinese regime of advocating separatism for Xinjiang.


Before 2017 we knew that he was denied food twice, each time for 10 days, and that he was shackled, around both feet and his wrists

Xinjiang, which means new territory in Mandarin, is a region in northwestern China that is home to the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim groups.

Jewher Ilham last saw her father on February 2nd, 2013, in Beijing airport. He was arrested but she travelled on to the United States, where she now lives.

She last spoke to her father on January 14th, 2014, the day before he was arrested again. Her family has not been allowed to visit him in prison since 2017.

As well as being imprisoned in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, thousands of miles away from Beijing where his family lived, Ilham Tohti was physically tortured, says Jewher.

“Before 2017 we knew that he was denied food twice, each time for 10 days, and that he was shackled, around both feet and his wrists.

“It stopped after we waged a public campaign. I don’t know about his current situation. If it has gotten any better, or if it is worse. We don’t even know if he is still alive.”

Jewher spoke to The Irish Times ahead of a remote talk she is to give on Thursday, hosted by University College Cork and the Scholars at Risk organisation, which has its European office at Maynooth University. The topic of her talk is The Path to Survival: The Uighur Struggle.

Jewher’s father is perhaps the most famous jailed scholar in the world, and was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2019.

During 2017, the Chinese authorities decided to cease allowing Ilham Tohti’s family from seeing him or communicating with him in any way.

“I think it was linked to the whole existence of the camp thing,” said Jewher, when asked why the Chinese authorities decided on this policy.

Incarcerated Turkic people

She is referring to the network of camps in Xinjiang where it is estimated that up to 1.5 million Turkic people have been incarcerated by the Chinese authorities.

The well-documented camp programme has been described by critics as cultural genocide and by the Chinese regime as a successful counter-terrorism measure.

As well as vast numbers of people being put into camps where they are obliged to repeat slogans about Marxist ideology and allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party, and not practice their religion, there is a parallel rise in the number of Turkic people being jailed in the Xinjiang region.

“ The entire system, the prison system in the Uighur region, it is no longer functioning in a normal way,” said Jewher. “Literally everyone, including the prison guards, probably have at least one family member [who is] locked up.”

She thinks the Chinese regime shut down the family’s contact with her father as the world began to take notice of what was going on in Xinjiang. “I also think that the Chinese government is trying to send a message to the entire world that they can do whatever they want to people, to anyone in China.”

Asked why she thinks the Beijing regime would want to do such a thing, she said that is a question for the Chinese government. “That is something that I want to ask them too. I want to have a sit down, face-to-face conversation with the Chinese government. Why would you do that to my family while we are the exact kind of people you should be working with if you really, truly wanted to develop the [Uighur] region, if you truly wanted to develop the country. My father is the exact kind of person that you should be working with, not have locked up in prison.”

There is no evidence that Ilham Tohti is anything other than a moderate on the Uighur question.

Earlier this year, following expressions of concern by academics in UCC, the university announced it was abandoning a plan to deepen its already existing ties with Minzu University, where Ilham Tohti once lectured. It did not give a reason for the move.

Jewher said she was aware of the controversy. She is not against co-operation with Chinese universities. People in China don’t have access to the type of information that the people outside China have and the exchanging of scholars can be helpful. “ I think that if you completely cut off your connection, then you lose your leverage over them. I’m not a very full-boycott type of person.”

Forced labour

However, she believes the position in relation to the use of Xinjiang cotton is different. Xinjiang produces about 80 per cent of all Chinese cotton, which is the equivalent of 20 per cent of the world’s cotton. Xinjiang cotton is used by most of the world’s top clothes brands, as well as the manufacturers of a host of other goods sold in the West.

There is now extensive evidence that, as well as its education camps and harsh imprisonment programme in Xinjiang, the Beijing regime has established an elaborate “vocational training” programme aimed at the Uighurs and other Turkic people that is in fact a system of forced labour.

“I do not support any use of Xinjiang cotton because that has the strongest connection with forced labour,” Jewher said.

She urged Irish people to consult websites such as Forced Labour Fashion or End Uyghur Forced Labour to get information on the brands that are using forced labour in China. Suggestions as to how people might help bring the practice to an end are also available on the website.

Jewher now lives in Washington DC, where she works for non-governmental organisation Worker Rights Consortium, with her focus being on worker rights in Xinjiang. She is no longer in direct communication with her family, who still live in China.

“Everyone is in China except me. We do not communicate with each other directly. To accept a phone call from me is not safe. For any Uighur to receive a phone call from overseas is not safe.”

A cousin of Jewher, a nurse, was jailed for 10 years for having a picture of Ilham Tohti and the text of one of his articles on her phone. “God knows what she is dealing with now.”

There are about 11 million Turkic people in Xinjiang, which has, over recent decades, seen a huge inward migration of Han Chinese.


Earlier this year the BBC reported that women in the “re-education” camps are being systematically raped, sexually abused and tortured. The Beijing government rejected the reports, saying they constituted “lies and rumours”.

Human rights groups and activists estimate that up to 1.5 million people have passed through the camps and say that the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, president Xi Jinping, is an avid supporter of the repression.

The New York Times reported in 2019 that the number of people being convicted and sent to jail in Xinjiang has more than quadrupled since 2014, when there was separatist violence in the region.

In the wake of the violence, president Xi told party officials that he wanted a response that showed “absolutely no mercy”.

As well as the camps, the prison policy and the use of forced labour, the system of repression in Xinjiang also involves the intensive monitoring of the population, including the monitoring of online and phone communications.

It was when Jewher’s cousin was passing a police checkpoint in Xinjiang and the police took her phone from her that the series of events that led to her being jailed for 10 years began, Jewher said.

The Chinese ambassador to Ireland, He Xiangdong, told The Irish Times in 2019, in the context of the China Cables reports, that thanks to the preventive counter-terrorism and deradicalisation efforts in Xinjiang, "including establishing vocational education and training centres", a region that once suffered gravely from terrorism hasn't seen a single violent, terrorist incident over the past three years.

Jewher is working on a documentary film about what the Chinese government has been doing in Xinjiang and elsewhere, and has a book coming out on what is happening to the Uighur people.

Asked how she feels about the future, she responded: “I am a very optimistic person and I’m kind of like my father. I think things will become better, but it is a matter of time, and what I have been doing, this activism and advocacy work, is just a way of making that come sooner.

“I personally hope my father and every innocent person locked up in a prison in China, including my father, including all the Uighurs, including the Tibetans, the Hong Kong-ers, the inner Mongolians, the Chinese Christians and the human rights lawyers who are locked up for the wrong reason, I hope they can be released. That’s my wish and that’s what I’m working towards.”

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent