Jewher Ilham - a Uighur woman fighting for her father

Ilham Tohti, an Uighur activist and 2020 Nobel Peace Prize finalist, has not been seen since 2017. His daughter talks about her efforts to free her father and fight for China's Muslim minority.

JEWHER ILHAM accepts the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament on behalf of her father. (photo credit: JEWHER ILHAM)
JEWHER ILHAM accepts the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament on behalf of her father.
(photo credit: JEWHER ILHAM)
February 2013. Eighteen-year-old Jewher Ilham headed to the airport in her home city of Beijing, together with her father, Ilham Tohti. The two planned to make their way to Indiana University, where Tohti was invited to be a visiting scholar. Ilham planned to accompany him and spend three weeks in Bloomington.
Ilham was looking forward to the experience, but she didn’t know that the day she would get on that plane would change her life – or that up to the present time, she would not see her father again.
Ilham and Tohti, 50, are Uighurs, members of a Turkic-speaking, mostly Sunni Muslim minority group in China. Tohti, an economist who lectured at universities, researched relations between Uighurs and Han, the majority Chinese ethnicity. He advised the government to build more hospitals and schools in Xinjiang, where Uighurs are concentrated.
But perhaps most importantly, he established the website “Uighur Online” in 2006, a forum for discussion of issues important to his community, and advocated for regional autonomy laws in China.
The website was an alternative to state media and an attempt to get around China’s censorship.
Ilham said in a recent interview with the Magazine: “There was only one voice in the society, but a normal society should not only have one voice. Not everyone thinks the same. My dad wanted to provide a platform for people to be able to share their thoughts freely. That’s why he created this website... It attracted a lot of attention in and out of China.” According to Ilham, “anyone could post or share [on the site], but [Tohti] would delete extremist content or bad language.”
In 2008 Chinese authorities shut down Uighur Online, but Tohti moved its servers to the US, reviving it. Tohti was repeatedly detained in the following years for criticizing Chinese authorities for undermining Uighur autonomy, and was accused of being a separatist.
In 2009, there were riots and clashes between Uighur and Han residents of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. The Chinese government reported 184 killed, mostly Han, while Uighurs say security forces and Han vigilantes killed hundreds of them. The governor of Xinjiang accused Uighur Online of inciting the riot through connections with Uighur expats and reporting on issues the official Chinese media ignored, such as suppression of religion and major unemployment in the ethnic group.
Tohti was detained and his whereabouts were unknown for over a month. He and two other dissidents were released over a month later, following pressure from the Obama administration. After his release, Tohti complained of inhumane treatment.
TOHTI AND his family were banned from leaving Beijing, and security agents were an almost constant presence in their lives.
Ilham recounted what it was like growing up with her activist father at home, in a recent interview with the Magazine.
In some ways, it was a normal childhood. He liked to cook, he told dad jokes – “he thinks he’s really funny, but he’s not,” Ilham shared – and she liked when he put her on his shoulders so she felt tall. He was honest almost to a fault, Ilham said.
But foremost, he was someone who “can’t stand injustice,” she said.
“If he saw an older Uighur woman walking alone on the street, he would ask her why she’s alone and where are her children,” she said. “I went to a boarding school and I came home one weekend to find a strange older woman in the apartment. He told me I have to go back to school to sleep, because she was going to sleep in our apartment. She had come all the way from [Xinjiang] to Beijing to look for her son... My dad always offered our place.” Not only are hotels expensive, Ilham explained, but “there were always restrictions around hotels; Uighur people were not allowed.”
On the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, Tohti would give gifts of money to Uighur students.
“He would give money to the students like they’re his children, and they would be so happy, because a lot of them came from poor families and never saw 100 yuan in their entire life,” Ilham said. “He would buy so much meat and offer it to students and random people.” Her family was culturally Muslim – Ilham knew she couldn’t eat pork or drink alcohol and not much beyond that – but she had never been to a mosque or held a Koran before going to the US. One time, she put on a hijab in her family’s apartment in Beijing, and her father told her to take it off immediately – out of concern that the authorities may see her.
Ilham began feeling the impact of Tohti’s activism when she was a teenager.
Twice in 2011, Tohti and some of his relatives – though not Ilham – were forced to leave their homes for a week, and then two. Ilham went home, found the house empty, and then found her own way to her mother’s house (her parents are divorced).
“We had policemen sleeping in our apartment,” Ilham said. “They would put bugging devices in our living room. They followed us when we traveled. It almost became normal to have police around all the time... We did nothing illegal, but it was their job to follow us.” Ilham said one police officer said to her father, “I wish we had met in different circumstances; you are such a good man.”
At the time, Ilham was more concerned about regular teenage things. She was aware of journalists from The New York Times or the BBC visiting, but she didn’t really care. She resented her father not having enough time for her, and lashed out at him.
“I regret that a lot,” she admitted.
BACK TO February 2013. Tohti and his daughter went to the airport late at night to try to avoid police attention. They enjoyed some ramen noodles before the flight.
And then came the police.
“We were stopped at the airport, even though we had all the legal documents, visas, passports,” Ilham recalled. “I was only 18 years old and appeared to be no threat to the government, so I was given the option to leave or stay [in China], and my father insisted that I leave.” Tohti was released from detention a few days later and put under house arrest in Beijing, where he was constantly monitored.
Ilham stayed in the US at her father’s insistence. He suggested she study English for a year.
“I wanted to go back, because I didn’t know anyone in the US, and I didn’t have any money. My only goal in the US was to help my father,” she said.
On January 15, 2014, Tohti was arrested in front of his four- and seven-year-old sons. When his wife came home, her sons told her Tohti had been beaten and shackled. The police had confiscated documents, phones, computers and even the family safe.
“The day before that was the last time I spoke to him,” Ilham said. “We used to Skype three times a day. The next day I just couldn’t reach him.”
Tohti was transferred to Urumqi, where the Public Security Bureau accused him of associating with terrorists, which he denied, and inciting separatism, though Ilham pointed out that her father’s research was on improving relations between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and he was one of the few leading Uighur intellectuals who was not a separatist.
No one in the family was allowed to see or speak to Tohti until May, when eventually two lawyers were permitted to meet with him. Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on September 23, 2014, in what Ilham called a show trial.
Though trials in China are theoretically allowed to be viewed by the public, Ilham said her father’s lawyers found that the courtroom was packed with random people, most of whom had nothing to do with the case and some of whom even napped during the proceedings. The goal, she said, was to minimize the amount of information the public would receive from the trial.
Ilham’s family has had no contact with her father since 2017, and her lawyers have not been allowed to see him in years either.
THE YEAR Tohti was sentenced to life in prison, 2014, was also the year the Chinese government ramped up its policies against the Uighur minority.
Laws against “religious extremism” banned owning books about Uighurs, growing a beard, owning a prayer rug and even abstaining from alcohol.
Masses of Uighurs – estimates range from hundreds of thousands to over a million – have been forced into mass detention camps, which the government said is to “reeducate” them with the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party for a minimum of 12 months. There has been a focus on detaining Uighur writers, artists and academics as a way to suppress the culture, and hundreds of thousands of Uighur children have been forced into boarding schools behind electrified fences.
This year, it has come to light that Uighur women were forced to have abortions, be sterilized or install intrauterine devices for contraception, or be sent to the camps. German scholar Adrian Zenz found that the birthrate in Xinjiang dropped 24% in 2019, as opposed to 4.2% across all of China. One of the UN’s definitions of genocide is “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” Ilham does not know where her father is currently located. Last she heard, he was in a prison, but he could be in a forced labor or other detention camp for Uighurs.
But as soon as her father was taken away in front of his two young sons in early 2014, Ilham jumped into a life of activism, doing all she could to save him.
Though she arrived in America not knowing how to speak English, “if you have to read the news every day to check where your family is, your English improves very fast,” Ilham noted. She has managed to complete three university degrees in the past seven years.
Echoing a strategy familiar to anyone who followed the stories of prisoners of Zion like Natan Sharansky and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, her goal is to make Tohti’s case “as high-profile as possible, so the government will think twice when they want to do something negative to my father.” It began in April 2014, when Ilham testified before the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, saying Beijing “has imprisoned a dissident intellectual whose sole ‘crime,’ in spite of the trumped-up charges that are being thrown around, was simply advocating human rights and equitable treatment for the Uighur people.” Ilham wrote op-eds in the Times and other major publications, spoke to journalists almost daily, as well as NGOs that could assist in the efforts. She is currently an Uighur human rights fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and at the end of the month she will move to a job at The Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uighur Region. Ilham published a book in 2015 and is writing another about her family and her personal experiences, as well as working on a book of her father’s work. And she regularly speaks to college and high school students and faculty.
Ilham said she is “closely in touch with US government officials,” and she even met US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in July 2019, as he sought to highlight efforts to combat religious persecution around the world. She also spoke at a UN General Assembly sideline event that year.
One of Ilham’s major successes was when her father won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2019.
And after being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize four times, Tohti is a first-time finalist in 2020. The laureate is to be announced on Friday, October 9.
Asked what she thinks governments should do, Ilham said she’s not an expert on policy, but encourages governments to constantly ask about her father’s whereabouts.
“We already achieved the recognition part. Now the hardest part is to get him released,” she said.
Living in the US, Ilham does not take her freedom for granted. She has connected more to her Muslim faith.
“It’s a great feeling,” she said. “No one can ever tell you to take off or put on your hijab, and if I go into a mosque, I’m not concerned about being arrested... I don’t currently put on a hijab, but if I do, I won’t be sterilized or put in a camp because of it.” Ilham had a personal message she sought to convey as well.
“Cherish your time with your family and friends, because you never know what will happen. Never did I ever think I would live on the other side of the planet by myself for seven years. Be grateful for what you have, pray to God, whatever religion you are, and be the best version of yourself. Be kind to each other, because we are all human beings.
“We all have two eyes, one nose, one mouth, one heart. We are all made the same, and we all deserve the same.”