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China Sentences Professor Accused Of Separatist Activities


The Hong Kong protests come while China's government cracks down on another movement. They're the Uighers of western China.


That mostly Muslim group includes a moderate Uigher scholar. Ilham Tohti has been sentenced to life in prison, accused of being a separatist. Today, we meet Ilham Tohti's daughter.

INSKEEP: Jewher Ilham is 20. Last year, she tried to come with her father to America, but her father was detained at the Beijing airport. And she had to decide whether to stay or go.

JEWHER ILHAM: The staff asked me, do you want to get on the plane now? And I was looking at my father, and my father said, what do you think? I said, no. If you are arrested here, why I am going to vacation in America alone? And then the staff asked me again, do you want to go or not? And I didn't answer, and I was looking at my father. And my father said go, go, my daughter, go please.

INSKEEP: The father, Ilham Tohti, was supposed to teach at Indiana University. His daughter was supposed to come along for a short time. Instead, she went alone. She became an Indiana University student. She had to follow her father's legal troubles from afar. Until his arrest in January, they spoke by video every day.

ILHAM: We talk through Skype because every day we want to make sure that we are safe. Every morning my father wants me to eat my breakfast and wash my face, brush my teeth. He just sits there and watch me do that every morning. And after January 15, he just - nobody watched me anymore.

INSKEEP: Did you know immediately that he had been arrested, or was it simply a matter of no one picking up the Skype call anymore?

ILHAM: No, we talked the night before, so I didn't feel strange that morning that my father didn't call me. So I didn't feel that strange, but I couldn't sleep the whole night. So after I came back from school, I felt tired. So I wanted to take a nap. And suddenly my father's friend knocked on my door, and then he told me that my father was arrested. And I thought he was joking to me.

INSKEEP: Are there other close members of your family who are still in China?

ILHAM: All except me, my brothers and my stepmom.

INSKEEP: And how are they doing?

ILHAM: They are not doing very well. My 8-year-old brother, he saw how my father was detained, and they beat my father in front of him. So he was - it was very high pressure for him. And he was under house arrest for half a year, even until now. So he got some hard problems, and he can't go to school now.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry to hear that.

ILHAM: It's kind of heartbreaking for me.

INSKEEP: Now, at the trial, as you know, the government alleged that your father, Ilham Tohti - they alleged that he was a Uigher separatist, that he wanted that part of the country to break off from the rest of China. Was he a separatist?

ILHAM: No, he's not. He was basically just trying to advocate for greater human rights.

INSKEEP: He ran a blog for a while, is that correct?

ILHAM: Yeah, yeah. A lot of people posted comments on it, write articles and share the news. And that's not what government wants.

INSKEEP: Some of the things that he wrote over the years made news outside the country. I've seen a few items, and those items anyway don't call for an independent Uigher state. They do complain that Uighers seem to be discriminated against, that there's a lack of jobs and seem to be excluded from the government. Those are the kinds of complaints that I saw. Was that the level of discussion he would normally - normally lead?

ILHAM: Yeah, yeah, for jobs and for the religion thing. Most of the Uigher people, they are Muslim. But in some region, we can't wear hijab, the scarf covering our head, and men can't have their beard, but this is a basic thing for Muslims.

INSKEEP: So in recent years, as the authorities zeroed-in on your father, the police would come regularly to the house.

ILHAM: Yeah, it's very often. We call it drink tea in China because...

INSKEEP: Come to drink tea.

ILHAM: Yeah. Like, ironic things - actually, it's not really drink tea.

INSKEEP: Would they just come and sit then, or were they looking around the house?

ILHAM: They talk to my father, and sometimes they asked my father for computer and telephone. They want to check sometimes, but we have nothing that we are afraid, so OK, check it.

INSKEEP: Now, in addition to running this blog, he was a university professor, right?


INSKEEP: You should have a chance then to answer something that I'm told the Chinese government has put out just in the last day or two - that they allege, based on three former students of his who are in custody somewhere, that the students say that they were intimidated by this man, made to work on his blog, that he was pushing them in frightening ways. Do you believe that?

ILHAM: Well, I don't believe because I know all of them, and we were like families. And how could my father force them to do that? I'm pretty sure those students were forced by the government to say my father forced them to work for my father.

INSKEEP: Why do you think the government of China has considered your father such a threat?

ILHAM: Well, because my father's, like, perspective is such, like, moderate, so whatever inside of China, the head Chinese people or other ethnic group people, they support my father. So that's what the Chinese government finds so threatening.

INSKEEP: Can you imagine returning to China?

ILHAM: I don't think that I will be able to go back to China before I finish my studies here because I am sure since I've done all the things for my father, since I've spread all the news for him, I am also on the blacklist, I think.

INSKEEP: Jewher Ilham, thank you very much.

ILHAM: Thank you, thank you.

INSKEEP: Her father, Ilham Tohti, received a life sentence in China. By the way, in recent days, some pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong tried to unfurl a poster of him. Police tore it down. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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