Tea Leaf Nation

After Sentencing for ‘Separatism,’ Finding the Humans Behind the Bars

Digital traces remain that shed light on who Ilham Tohti's students really were.


In a recent speech lamenting the harassment of civil society activism around the globe, President Barack Obama singled out just two examples from China. He raised the well-known case of Liu Xiaobo, the dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who in 2009 was sentenced to 11 years in jail for inciting subversion. The other person Obama mentioned during his address to the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 23 was Ilham Tohti. Tohti is a former economics professor at Minzu University in Beijing and a tireless advocate for the rights of China’s predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic Uighur minority to which he belongs. On the day of Obama’s speech, Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for separatism. The court said Tohti used a website he founded, Uighur Online, to advocate for independence for China’s vast far western region of Xinjiang, the traditional Uighur homeland.

Tohti denies the charges. He says that he has argued for greater autonomy for Uighurs and the Xinjiang region but has never promoted independence. His website, since shut down, was indeed sharply critical of China’s policies in Xinjiang, particularly limits on religious freedom and a government campaign to bring more Han Chinese into the region. Han in-migration is a source of bitterness because Tohti and others say it has taken jobs away from local Uighurs. The site also criticized efforts to popularize Mandarin Chinese when they appeared to come at the expense of the Uighur language. Simmering Uighur anger over these and other issues has increasingly spiraled into inter-ethnic violence in Xinjiang. Uighur knife and bomb attacks in the past usually targeted police or government buildings but have increasingly focused on ordinary Han Chinese, a worrying trend that has pushed Beijing to declare a “people’s war” on terrorism in Xinjiang. Tohti, widely considered a moderate voice, appears to be paying the price for that escalating violence.

The government’s case against Tohti was that he had “bewitched and coerced” students into generating articles for his website that added fuel to Uighur anger. Three students testified that Tohti had forced them to post inflammatory material online. Those articles “attacked China’s ethnic, religious, economic and family planning policies, and incited ethnic hatred,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Sept. 23, citing a court statement. While many articles on the site were critical, it is a leap to argue that they incited hatred or violence. It is also impossible to know whether Tohti’s students were indeed “bewitched and coerced.”

From January to September prior to Tohti’s trial, seven of his current and former students from Beijing’s Minzu University and Renmin University were held incommunicado. Not even their families were informed of their whereabouts. Then on Thursday, Sept. 25, three of them were shown on national television dressed in orange inmate vests, being interviewed behind bars. The students’ treatment and the secrecy surrounding their cases has sparked concerns about whether they received a fair trial and whether their testimony was given under duress. William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher with the global rights NGO Amnesty International, told the Associated Press: “The irregularities and abuse of law in this case has turned China’s rule of law on its head.” On Sept. 26, Sophie Richardon, China director for Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times that her organization was “seriously concerned about whether any of these young men have had any access to any of the most basic protections guaranteed under domestic and international law.”

After Tohti’s sentencing, the students were themselves sentenced to between three and eight years in jail for alleged separatism related to their roles in maintaining the Uighur Online site. All seven stood trial on Nov. 25 and were sentenced Dec. 8. After the prison terms were announced, Tohti’s defense lawyer Li Fangping took to China’s Twitter-like social media site Weibo to write that he thought the punishments were lighter than expected – and that the relative leniency toward the students showed that the case was primarily about Tohti.

While awaiting trial, Tohti had been kept in a detention center in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi. The students were held in nearby cells. “I heard the sound of shackles, nonstop, as they were taken to interrogations,” Tohti said in a statement that he shared with his lawyers on Sept. 24. He also said he counted himself “fortunate” when he considered what had happened to his students and to “other Uighurs accused of separatist crimes.” Tohti noted that he had been able to choose the lawyers that defended him, that his family was present at trial, and that he was “able to say what I wanted to say.” It’s not clear whether the students had lawyers of their choosing, or if their families were allowed in court. The New York Times reported that several relatives of the students who did not want to be identified by name gathered outside during Tohti’s trial in the hopes of getting more information about their cases.

Who are these seven students? With their families tight-lipped and the government extremely spare with any details about their cases — it has yet to even clarify which students were sentenced to three years in jail and which to seven and eight — it’s difficult to conjure a sense of them. However, being young and computer savvy, several left hints about their interests, networks and personalities on their online social media accounts. The lingering traces of the students still adrift on the digital sea are not enough to build reliable portraits — Foreign Policy also did not analyze Uighur-language posts — but what’s available does help fill in rough sketches of these seven people. Some but not all used China’s Twitter-like Weibo, Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn. (There is no way to verify that each post was in fact written by the students and not the result of a hack or other interference.) At least two of the students had been profiled by Chinese newspapers in the past: one on Nov. 11, 2011, for his AIDS prevention work handing out needles to drug addicts on the outskirts of Beijing; the other on Dec. 19, 2012, for her attempts to shame police on social media for denying her a passport (passport application rejections are a common complaint amongst Uighurs in China).

One of the students is from Xinjiang’s Aksu, an oasis town abutting the Taklamakan desert; another is from Lop county in Hotan prefecture close to the border with Tibet; a third is from Tokkuztara county, a stretch of remote forests and mountains close to Kazakhstan. One woman and six men, they range in age from 23 to 33 years old. One of the students was learning French and was planning to do a PhD in sociology. Another had studied in Istanbul, Turkey.

One is from the ethnic Yi minority, a cultural group of approximately 8 million located primarily in south China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. The other six are Uighurs.

On Facebook, 30-year-old Luo Yuwei, the only non-Uighur in the group, practiced his French and documented his frequent travels around China. On Dec 26, 2012, during a visit to Changchun in China’s bitterly cold northeast, he wrote in French that it was cold and perfect for skiing. In another post, he complained in Chinese about having to use a proxy server to “scale the Great Firewall” in order to get onto Facebook, which is blocked in China. He said the process made him “depressed.” Another time, he joked in a post about how embarrassing it was for China to have its only Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Liu Xiaobo, serving time in jail for inciting subversion. The Luo on Facebook seems edgier and punchier than he is behind bars testifying against Tohti. On CCTV, China’s state-run network, he appeared cowed. He said Tohti threatened to take away his degree if he didn’t contribute work for Uighur Online and said he would “bury him in the desert where no one could find him” if Luo “provoked” him. Tohti seemed like “a gangster,” not a teacher, Luo said.

After the interview aired, one of Tohti’s defense lawyers, Liu Xiaoyuan, took to Twitter to defend his client against Luo’s accusations. Liu wrote that Tohti argued during his trial that he was a professor and had no ability to confiscate anyone’s degree. He also quoted Tohti telling the court that Luo was paid to administer the website. Liu wrote: “The site had an issue and was down and Tohti went to him and got angry, what’s so strange about that?”

Perhat Halmurat is from Tokkuztara county, a mountainous area close to Kazakhstan. He graduated from the School of Ethnology and Sociology at Minzu University and was continuing with graduate work in anthropology when he was given a scholarship to study at Istanbul University. He tried to fly to Turkey in September 2013 to start his studies but was detained at Beijing Capital International Airport for allegedly “attempting to flee the country,” Washington-DC-based, U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia reported at the time. He was held for 16 hours and released but remained barred from leaving China.

Halmurat was one of three students shown on Chinese news testifying against Tohti. He had served as a web editor for Uighur Online, and in the interview with CCTV he said that Tohti approved all articles on the site and encouraged him to “hype” problems between ethnic groups. Halmurat said Tohti did this to achieve his “separatist goal.” In the statement shared with his lawyers on Sept. 24 after his sentencing, Tohti said he had heard Halmurat the night before in the jail cell next to his. He “slammed himself against the door and cried out loud,” Tohti said.

The third student to testify on CCTV against Tohti was Shohret Nijat, a Uighur graduate student at Renmin University in Beijing. A social media footprint for him could not be found. He said in the video that Tohti encouraged him and other students working on Uighur Online to post articles that countered the government view on issues. “If the government says it is white, then we must say it is black,” he said.

Little is known about Abduqeyum Ablimit. According to an August 2014 blog post about the students by the Tibetan activist Tsering Woeser, Ablimit was a senior at Minzu University. It’s not clear how old he is or where he grew up.

Another of the students was a career activist, but wasn’t exclusively focused on Uighur issues. Akbar Imin, 33, graduated from Minzu University, where Tohti taught, in 2006. He went on to work as a program director for an AIDS prevention program run by the Beijing-based Aizhixing non-profit organization. In November 2011, the state-run Global Times quoted him saying that his work was about “harm reduction.” He said: “If we don’t give them clean needles, they’ll share a needle with others who are infected.” Authorities detained Imin on Jan. 15 while in Urumqi for his father’s funeral, Reuters reported in March, citing a statement from Aizhixing. It wasn’t clear whether Imin allegedly worked for Uighur Online as a student or after graduation or both. He wasn’t among the three students who testified on CCTV.

The student suspect with the biggest online presence is Mutellip Imin, 25, a former Minzu University student who had been studying in Istanbul while also still working as a volunteer for Uighur Online. Imin regularly posted to Weibo, Twitter, and Facebook and kept a blog hosted by WordPress, which like Twitter and Facebook is blocked in China. It was on that blog that he documented his experience of being detained by Chinese police in three hotels over 79 consecutive days between July and October 2013. Like Halmurat, he had been detained at Beijing Capital International Airport just before a flight to Istanbul. But instead of being released after a few hours, he was held incommunicado for months. According to his own online account of the detention, police questioned him at length about his work for Uighur Online and forced Imin to give them all the passwords to his phone, computer, and social media accounts. This detention appears to have been an early part of building a case against Tohti.

Though police had access to Imin’s online accounts, they were not deleted or deactivated, and much of the content remains available. On January 9 of this year, just before he was detained again, Imin posted to Weibo a news article about President Xi Jinping’s campaign to strengthen rule of law. Imin wrote that the public security officials who held him and other relevant authorities “should carefully study the content of Chairman Xi’s speech and handle matters according to law!” On Twitter, Imin regularly posted articles from Uighur Online that are no longer available. (The site was taken down shortly before Tohti’s January 15 arrest because it was under constant DDOS attacks, according to a Washington, DC-based Uighur journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity.) Many of the articles Imin linked to dealt with Uighur rights issues and discrimination. On May 31, 2013 he posted a photo on Twitter of a notice painted on a wall in Xinjiang ordering Uighur women not to wear veils and men not to have beards. On Facebook, he posted pictures of himself in Istanbul and listed his favorite music, including the London Uyghur Ensemble.

Atekim Rozi, the only woman in the group, was also very active on social media and was the girlfriend of Mutellip Imin. Rozi, a 23-year-old from Aksu close to the Taklamakan desert in western Xinjiang, was a senior at Minzu University when she was detained in January. Her first Facebook post was June 22, 2011; she wrote in English: “I’m a newcomer to facebook, peace be upon me and you, welcome to my facebook[sic]!” On July 17, 2011, she posted a video from YouTube titled “Chinese Terrorist massacring Uyghur Muslim in East Turkistan.” The title was written by the Uighur rights group that put it on YouTube but the video was actually footage shot by state-run broadcaster CCTV showing Chinese military detaining Uighurs in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi.

Online, Rozi comes across as both sweet and tough, posting photos of herself with a flower by her face but also complaining bitterly about being denied a passport. Those Weibo complaints led to her February 2013 questioning by police, an experience that seems only to have sharpened her interest in Uighur rights issues. She posted in Mandarin, English, and Uighur, often linking to articles from Uighur Online as well as photos of herself and the occasional link to an online music video. Among her “likes” are Ilham Tohti and late pop star Michael Jackson. On October 15, 2013 she posted a photo of Tohti to Weibo wishing him a happy Eid festival, calling him “the conscience of the Uighur people” and thanking him for his dedication to Uighur causes. “We love you,” she wrote. On Twitter, she followed many prominent Chinese human rights activists, many who have been in and out of detention themselves, including Woeser, the artist Ai Weiwei, and the jailed legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who campaigned for greater government transparency. But Rozi posted little here, putting up just 14 tweets between April and June 2011. She was much more active on Weibo, though many of her posts have since been deleted.

Still remaining on Weibo are several messages from 2013, when Imin, Rozi’s boyfriend, was being secretly held by police. On Sept. 18 2013, his birthday, she posted a photo of Imin and wrote “Mutellip, today is your birthday, last year we two celebrated your birthday together in Beijing. Where are you now?” In a separate post a few days earlier, when Imin had been missing for 55 days, she wrote, “He has always been honest and hard-working, I don’t believe he has done anything illegal. As his girlfriend and friend for many years, I am really worried about him and sad. Mutellip, where are you? Are you okay?”

Weibo/Fair Use

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. Twitter: @ael_o

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