WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) strongly condemns the life sentence handed down to respected Uighur Muslim scholar Ilham Tohti for “separatism.” The conditions of his detention and trial as well as his sentence clearly violate international law and call into question China’s claim to be a country based on the rule of law.
“USCIRF calls on the Chinese government to immediately and unconditionally release Ilham Tohti. This prisoner of conscience’s sentence of life imprisonment is yet another example of the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress Uighur Muslims and others who peacefully advocate within the system for human rights and the rule of law. USCIRF also calls on the Chinese government to unconditionally release the seven students who were detained with Tohti,” said USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett.
Known for his advocacy of Uighur rights and autonomy for Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland, Professor Tohti was an economics professor in Beijing until his arrest in January 2014. His sentence reflects the Chinese government’s hardline stance against Uighur Muslims and those it perceives as critical of its policies in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Since 2009, the Chinese government has instituted sweeping security measures that, among other goals, have sought to weaken Uighur Muslims’ religious adherence and eradicate so-called “illegal” religious gatherings and activities. Uighur Muslims have expressed deep resentment at Beijing’s oversight of Xinjiang and the restrictions on their religious practices and activities.
“The Chinese government’s targeting of Uighur Muslim’s peaceful private gatherings predictably has led to instability and insecurity, and fueled resentment and the very extremism it seeks to quell. For the sake of security and stability as well as religious freedom, the Chinese government should lift restrictions on all peaceful religious activities. Professor Tohti’s sentencing also underscores the harsh nature of the Chinese government’s crackdown in Xinjiang and elsewhere. I recently met with family members of Chinese prisoners of conscience whose stories about their loved ones highlight the urgent need for China to join the community of nations in recognizing for all its citizens genuine and meaningful respect for human rights and religious freedom in law, regulation and practice” said Lantos Swett.
USCIRF’s 2014 Annual Report chapter on China highlights the religious freedom abuses and violence that have resulted from the government’s policies in Xinjiang and throughout the country. USCIRF has recommended “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) status for China for its systematic, egregious and ongoing violations of religious freedom or belief since the Commissions first made CPC recommendations in 2000. The U.S. government has designated China a CPC since 1999.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments, and to give independent policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.
Katrina Lantos Swett, Chairman • Robert P. George, Vice Chair • James J. Zogby, Vice Chair Mary Ann Glendon • M. Zuhdi Jasser • Daniel I. Mark • Thomas J. Reese Hannah Rosenthal • Eric P. Schwartz • Jackie Wolcott, Executive Director