PEN calls for release of Uighur writer from Xinjiang jail | Asia Pacific

PEN calls for release of Uighur writer from Xinjiang jail

PEN calls for release of Uighur writer from Xinjiang jail

Updated 1 July 2014, 7:09 AEST

There're renewed calls for Uighur writer Ilham Tohti to be freed from jail in China's far west province of Xinjiang.

Mr Tohti, who resides in Beijing, was taken from his home in January and has been in detention since.

The literary human rights organisation PEN American Centre has called for China to honour its international obligations on the treatment of prisoners.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Sarah Hoffman, Freedom to Write Coordinator, PEN American Centre

HOFFMAN: IIham Tohti, who's a Uighur scholar and writer from Xinjiang was arrested at his home in Beijing, where he was teaching at Minzu University. He disappeared for over a month before his family was notified that he had been taken back to Xinjiang and he's been held in detention centre ever since. He's been accused of separatism, which is a very serious charge in China and could lead to the death penalty if he is convicted. 
We're unsure if he's being held under suspicion of separatism or has been formerly arrested and charged. We've actually heard those things, so it's difficult to know, because the system has been opaque at this point. We're investigating and trying to get to the bottom of it.
LAM: Can you tell us about his condition at present?
HOFFMAN: Yes, his lawyer, Li Fangping, was finally permitted to visited him more than 5 months after his arrest and it turns out that he has had food withheld from him for ten days back in March when there was a terrorist attack in Kunming. It seemed to be punishment related to this attack, which he had nothing to do with and he was also shackled by the ankles for 20 days, which both amount to inhumane and degrading punishment, which we're really concerned about.
LAM: And what news do we have of Mr Tohti's health?
HOFFMAN: He seems to have lost quite a bit of weight and he seems to be suffering from a number of ailments. We have been told that he is not been beaten, which is a relief, but there are many, many ways to abuse a prisoner that don't involve fists.
LAM: And Ilham Tohti, of course, is being held in Xinjiang. That's a long way from his home in Beijing?
HOFFMAN: Very far, yes, and his wife has not been able to visit him and it doesn't look likely that she will be able to visit him. We also suspect that it could be because detention centres in these far off regions, like Xinjiang, like Tibet, are much more opaque than, than what you would find in mainland China, in Beijing, Shanghai or whatever.  And there is a lot more systematic abuse that goes on in those detention centres. 
So I think it's easier for them to really pull up a curtain. There's also not a whole lot of journalistic access to these areas, no international observers. It's just a lot more difficult for the public to get a clearer picture of what's going on and that's probably what they want.
LAM: Speaking of access, how frequently does his lawyer, Li Fangping get to see him?
HOFFMAN: This was the first time he was able to see him at all. He was detained in January, and Li Fangping, who is his lawyer applied to represent him and was denied access to him.
Last week, he had heard that IIham Tohti had been tried in secret, and so he made repeated calls to the police centre to try to get a straight answer and finally learned over the weekend, I believe, that IIham's case. He hadn't been tried, but his case was handed to the prosecutor's office, so that allowed him the ability to finally see him since it's a state security case. So Li Fangping travelled with an associate on Monday, we understand, was denied immediate access and was told to wait from higher authorities, and was finally granted access. We don't know when he will be able to see him again.
LAM: So what happens now as far as PEN is concerned?
HOFFMAN: Well, PEN continues to maintain his innocence. IIham Tohti has not, emphatically, not promoted violence, has not promoted separatism. 
He has used the laws to promote equality for Uighurs and Han Chinese and has really only tried to open the door to understanding to prevent these kinds of suspicions that have really fuelled the tensions between Uighurs and Hans. 
So PEN is going to continue to fight for him, we're going to continue to press for the Chinese government to release him immediately and unconditionally, because China is attempting to become a super power and they're stepping more assuredly on the world stage. 
Allowing their people full access to information and for full rights to speak and write freely and tell their own stories is truly what makes a country strong and secure, and PEN is going to continue to fight for Ilham and his freedom.


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