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“All human beings are born free and equal

in dignity and rights.”

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Ilham Tohti


Detained Since: January 15, 2014.

Charges: Separatism.

Sentence: Life in prison.

Biography: Ilham Tohti is a Uyghur economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University, where he was known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations as well as his activism for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China.

In 2006, Tohti founded UighurOnline, a Chinese-language website devoted to fostering understanding between Uighur and Han people, China’s dominant ethnic group. In 2008, authorities shut down his website citing the websites links to Uyghur “extremists” abroad. After the July 5, 2009 ethnic rioting between Uyghurs and Han in Ürümqi, Tohti’s whereabouts were unknown after he had been summoned from his home in Beijing. Tohti was subsequently released on August 23, 2009 after international pressure and condemnation.

Tohti was again arrested in January 2014, after police raided his apartment and confiscated his laptops, books, and papers. In September 2014, after a two-day trial, Tohti was found guilty of “separatism” and sentenced to life imprisonment in addition to all of his assets being frozen.

Advocacy Partner: Scholars at Risk

Past Advocate: Rep. James R. Langevin (D-RI, Ret.)


  • Ilham Tohti: A Short Introduction. A call for the nomination of Ilham Tohti for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (February 8, 2016, Uyghur Human Rights Project).
  • Ilham Tohti is a recipient of the 2016 Martin Ennals Award Laureate for Human Rights Defenders. This award is to provide protection through international recognition (October, 11, 2016, Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders).
  • The Washington Post published a piece highlighting China’s dismay of Ilham Tohti receiving the 2016 Martin Ennals Award Laureate for Human Rights Defenders (October 11, 2016, The Washington Post).
  • Ilham Tohti's daughter spoke out in support of her father's peaceful promotion of equal rights and greater autonomy for the Turkic speaking Uyghur ethnic group in China (March 11, 2017, Radio Free Asia).
  • The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization conducted a joint interview about the case of Ilham Tohti at the European Parliament (June 7, 2017, UNPO).
  • Ilham Tothi was awarded the Weimar Human Rights Prize for his commitments to the rights of Uyghurs in the Xinjang autonomous region (July 3, 2017, UNPO). 
  • Jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was honored at a ceremony in The Hague, where he was awarded Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom, given in absentia and accepted on his behalf by a rights group advocating for his release (November 30, 2017, Radio Free Asia).
  • The EU delegation to China is extremely concerned about the denial to Chinese citizens of fundamental human rights, and has called for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders, including lawyer Jiang Tianyong and Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti (December 9, 2017, Hong Kong Free Press).
  • Reports have surfaced that Ilham Tohti's wife and children will not be allowed to visit him in prison in 2018 (January 17, 2018, Radio Free Asia).
  • Gay McDougall, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, raised Mr. Tohti's case at a hearing in Geneva on conditions in Xinjiang (August 13, 2018, New York Times).
  • Lawmakers of the bipartisan Congressional Executive Commission on China, led by Senator Marco Rubio, said that they intend to nominate Ilham Tohti for the Nobel Peace Prize (October 11, 2018, Quartz).
  • 132 scholars and 18 civil society groups have called on China’s government to immediately release Ilham Tohti from prison in statements marking the fifth anniversary of his arrest (January 15, 2019, Radio Free Asia).
  • The World Uyghur Congress, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, and Norwegian Uyghur Committee have nominated Ilham Tohti for the Rafto Prize. The Rafto Prize is awarded annually to recognize the work of human rights defenders and to shed light on serious human rights violations (January 28, 2018, UNPO).
  • More than a dozen bipartisan U.S. lawmakers have nominated Ilham Tohti to receive the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, citing his commitment to peaceful interethnic dialogue between Uyghurs and China’s Han majority (January 30, 2019, Radio Free Asia).
  • At the 37th EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, EU officials raised the case of Ilham Tohti with their Chinese counterparts (April 2, 2019, European Union External Action).
  • Ilham Tohti was honored in absentia with Freedom House's Freedom Award. His daughter Jewher accepted it on his behalf (May 9, 2019, Radio Free Asia).
  • The Renew Europe Group of the European Parliament nominated Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2019 (September 19, 2019, UNPO).
  • Ilham Tohti was one of two co-recipients of the 2019 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize which honors outstanding civil society action in favor of human rights (September 30, 2019, Council of Europe). 
  • Front Line Defenders launched the ‘Set Them Free’ campaign to shine a light on the fate of 11 human rights activists, includng Ilham Tohti, suffering long-term imprisonment for "their legitimate work defending and advancing the rights of their communities" (October 3, 2019, Breaking News).
  • The European Parliament shortlisted jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti for the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, for "exceptional individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms" (October 8, 2019, Radio Free Asia). 
  • The European Parliament awarded the 2019 Sakharov Prize to Ilham Tohti, citing his tireless work to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and other Chinese people (October 25, 2019). 
  • Ilham Tohti was named by One Free Press Coalition as one of the "10 Most Urgent" list of journalists whose press freedoms are being suppressed or cases demand justice (January 6, 2020, One Free Press Coalition).