A teacher at Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities, Tohti was arrested on 15 January 2014, the day that the authorities closed the news website that he edited, Uighur Online (Uighurbiz), and detained all those writing for it.
He was given a life sentence on a separatism charge at the end of a trial held behind closed doors eight months later in Urumqi, the capital of the western province of Xinjiang, which has a large Uyghur community. He is now aged 48.
“The situation of Ilham Tohti, a citizen-journalist condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison for running a news website, is typical of the massive human rights violations taking place under President Xi Jinping,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau. “It should be noted that he was calling not for separatism but rather for a dialogue to reach a peaceful solution to his community’s problems.”
The European Parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in September 2016.
After visiting him prison in July 2016, his family said they feared for his health because he had lost a lot of weight. RSF shares their concern. Both Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate, and Yang Tongyan, a blogger, died last year after being denied medical care in detention. Other leading Chinese detainees such as Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Liu Xia, the journalist and RSF laureate Huang Qi, and the blogger Wu Gan, risk the same fate.
China is ranked 176th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.